Well I don’t know if we can call Rafael Nadal the pigeon of James Blake, but it would appear that a few pin feathers are growing in. Blake is the only man, besides Thomas Berdych, to beat Nadal three times in a row. Berdych actually lost their very first meeting, but the last three were spread out over two years. Blake did it all this year.
And he did it again Tuesday in Shanghai, in straight sets. It was rock’em-sock’em no holds barred blistering fantastic tennis, and I was so thrilled to see Blake fired up. He loves playing this guy. If you were a Yank, you were probably leaping around the room too, yelling with glee. In fact Berdych was there watching as an alternate along with Mario Ancic, both of whom had practiced this week with Blake. Roger Federer should have been watching this match too, if he wasn’t, because Blake laid it all out there: how to play and beat Nadal. Don’t you think those guys are taking this all in.
Andy Roddick played at the same level in his match against Roger Federer today. It took them three sets and even though Roddick went down in defeat, it was the best match he’s played this year.
The difference was that Blake managed to close the deal in the second set tie break, Roddick let it slip away. But anyone who thinks American men’s tennis is on life support should get a glimpse of these two matches on tape. They are the best samples of kick ass American men’s tennis on display this year.
Still, there are elements to be critical of. Andy Roddick played fearlessly and well to get into the doorway, but once there he got a little tight. Usually what happens is the first serve goes off. If it’s a bad case, then the stiffening spreads into a brain cramp, and he does something improbable on court, or ends up being out of position.
Meantime, on the other side of the net, Federer is battening down the hatches and tightening everything up in his game. He must have been sweating a lot in this match, and they say Roger doesn’t ever sweat. But what’s that fine sheen on your forehead, guy? Did he have a little deja vu back to that moment when he was serving for the Rome final against Nadal? It was a match point I believe. And he let down that little bit. Nadal needed no more and went on to win.
That’s where Andy Roddick found himself today, up several mini-breaks and serving for it all in the second set tie-break. Andy blinked, and Roger wiggled. He probably hoped that Roddick would start to go away quickly in the third, like so many of his opponents. But Roddick did not pull a Nalbandian and pack his bags after winning the first set, then losing the second, and just vanishing in the third. Even after Federer got the one break in the third game Roddick still tried to hang in. And then it was over at 6-4. Still, there is a certain air of gloom over the proceedings whenever Federer is tied with you and now it’s the third set.
We can count on one hand the times a player has pushed Rafael Nadal around on a court this year. Blake laid out a textbook case of how you can beat Rafa, and he followed it with absolute relentlessness. Serve well, follow it up by taking away the net, or if not the net then get in to pick off the floaters, blast the Spaniard well behind the baseline with your huge forehands and keep him there, and if he wants to play backhand games with you, why, simply nail that great, flat screaming backhand up the line. Nadal’s worst nightmare this season was the number of Blake backhands that flew past him. The other thing you need to beat him is to return return return.
The first set saw break chances for both players. In Game 3 of the first set Blake fended off three break points on his serve. In Game 7 Blake got down again, and this time Nadal broke him for 4-3. Blake came roaring back, putting Nadal under attack again at love-40. Nadal fought him off for deuce, then James uncorked one of his stellar backhands up the line. This was the bread and butter shot of the day. Blake breaks back in the next game, and the score is 4-all. He holds his serve routinely for 5-4, then starts pressuring Nadal again, going up 30-40 on Nadal’s serve and charging the net. Nadal dumps a shot in the net and Blake has the first set, 6-4.
But does he have the match? My stomach churns at this point usually for our lad, because here is where the mental letdowns creep in. Suddenly in the second set, Nadal is up 4-0. I was watching Blake very carefully in these games, to see if I could decipher why the air is running out of his sails. You could almost measure a certain drop in his intensity. For Nadal, that’s as good as blood in the water.
No no no, I’m praying silently, as the errors start to flow off James’ racquet. Seven of them during this opening second set stretch. Quickly the games flit by, and we have 4-0. This is a moment we recognize too, where Nadal gets his teeth into a match, takes the middle set, and crushes you in the third. Like Federer. But lo and behold, Blake puts the plug in, he gathers himself together, and he comes back. Time for another great backhand screamer up the line.
The tie break saw no diminution in Blake’s aggressive play. Unlike Roddick, Blake tromped on the gas pedal. He started with an ace, then hit a nifty inside-out forehand winner off Nadal’s serve for 2-0. He works over Nadal’s backhand for 3-0. On his serve Blake got a weak return from Nadal for 4-0. Then Blake decided to be daring and he served a second serve into Nadal’s forehand, and it came back right up the middle. Blake angled it into a corner and moved forward, putting away the volley for 5-0. Nadal didn’t help his cause by double-faulting, and now it was match point. Blake finished Nadal with a great hard forehand up the line.
Whew, it’s exhausting just writing about it. We wonder what the lads will serve up next. I heard a rumor some other guys were playing here too, but ESPN2 kindly keeps out the riffraff for us.