Finding Their Level

by: Steve Tignor | September 01, 2012

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NEW YORK—After his second-round win at the U.S. Open two days ago, James Blake was asked how he would prepare for his next match, against Milos Raonic, a player 11 years his junior. “It’s crazy to me,” Blake said, in his customary rush of words, “because my career, it feels like it’s gone so fast. I feel like I was the young kid a minute ago. Now I have a guy like Raonic who is going to be serving 140 at me. Seems like he could last forever. I felt like that when I was 22 years old as well.”

“I feel like I was the young kid a minute ago”: You don’t have to be a tennis player to have those words ring true. But they ring a lot louder for a pro like Blake. He may be only 32, but with Andy Roddick’s retirement, he’s now the official elder statesman of the American men’s game. Tennis is like life, only it’s lived at warp speed.

It was ironic that on the same day that Roddick retired, his old buddy and Davis Cup teammate sounded like a tour rookie again. For years it was Blake, hobbled by knee tendinitis, who was on retirement watch, while Roddick was the horse who just kept working.

“It’s funny now,” Blake said. “I feel like I’ve got sort of a youthful exuberance out there again. I’m excited now.”

Tennis makes its players feel prematurely old, to the point where a 32-year-old can be amazed to feel “youthful” again. Blake spent his first two rounds this week turning back the clock, and giving fans at Flushing Meadows a few faint whiffs of deja vu. His demolition of Marcel Granollers, currently ranked No. 24, made us all remember just how good Blake could be. Oh right, you might have thought as he belted another forehand winner, this man really did make it to No. 4 in the world.

I had even begun to believe that Blake would beat Raonic, a champion still very much in the making. But it was obvious by the end of the first set tonight on the Grandstand that, while Blake may have the exuberance of youth, the baby-faced, missile-launching Raonic has the real thing. He hit 29 aces, which wasn’t surprising. He also controlled the rallies through the first two sets with ease, which was. Raonic pounded Blake’s backhand, and Blake’s psyche, into submission. When he played Granollers, we were reminded of how good Blake could be. Tonight we were reminded of a few of his flaws, most notably the way his head began to hang a little lower with every lost game.

“It just makes for a day of not so much fun tennis,” Blake said of Raonic’s serve, which was “definitely one of the best” he had ever faced. These moments come with the territory, as Blake knows. There are no in betweens in tennis. You’re the exuberant winner one night, and the down in the mouth loser who had “not so much fun” the next. Blake says he’s ready to keep pushing forward, to a tournament in Metz, France, in two weeks, and on to the Australian Open in January.

As Blake was winding up his match in the Grandstand, his doubles partner at this tournament, Sam Querrey, was starting his third-rounder against Tomas Berdych next door in Armstrong. Querrey is another American who has been on the comeback trail this summer. The 24-year-old’s career was derailed by elbow surgery in 2011, which sent his ranking tumbling and forced him to miss last year’s U.S. Open. Even before that, though, the mellow Californian struggled with his motivation at times. He bolted the French Open in 2010 early, despite still being in the doubles, after burning out on the clay-court circuit that spring. But Querrey recommitted himself to the sport, swallowed his pride and won a Challenger in Sarasota, and has seen his results improve through the year. He lost the second-longest match in Wimbledon history, to Marin Cilic, in June, then won in L.A. and reached the semis in D.C. and Winston-Salem.

By August, Querrey said he was hitting the ball better than he ever had from both sides. That feeling continued through his second-round win at the Open. Here’s how Sam described it, in his characteristic California-ese:

“I played great today. I served well. Didn’t face a break point. I was really aggressive on my forehand. Really went for it. Really just felt really good and confident the whole time. I’m hoping to play like that on Saturday.”

Querrey did play like that, for a set, on Saturday. Then Berdych, like an arm-wrestler, slowly pushed him back. The turning point came with Querrey up a set and serving at 3-3 in the second. At deuce he went for a head-scratching 128 M.P.H. second serve and missed it. On break point, he set up for an easy overhead and drilled it well wide. On his way to the sideline, Querrey obliterated his racquet. It was a meltdown from out of nowhere, and he never seriously challenged Berdych again. Querrey hit 20 aces, but he was 1 of 10 on break points. He couldn’t match Berdych’s flat power from the ground, and he couldn’t quite get over the hump.

Querrey’s summer surge has been short-circuited. That’s what the Open does to the hopefuls from the hard-court season. It brings them face to face with reality, and their place in the game. In D.C. and Cincy and Toronto and L.A., the players are working toward something bigger; the most important match is always at the end of the road in New York. Once they’ve lost at the Open, there’s nowhere else to look–summer’s over. That’s what both Blake and Querrey ran into today.

The good news is that, after being in free fall at various points over the last two years, each of them has stabilized. They seem happy to found a level at all. When it was over, Querrey was still upbeat about his recent success, and seemed relieved to be established in the Top 30 again, a position he can live with for now.

By the end of his press conference, Blake sounded much happier as he talked about life on the road with his newborn daughter. “I can’t imagine what life was like before Riley,” he said. The downside of getting older is that you lose your youthful fearlessness. The upside, hopefully, is that you gain perspective. The losses still sting, but you’ve been there before and you know you can’t win them all. The wins, and the rush of exuberance they bring—exuberance that you thought you’d already lost at 32—are enough to keep you going.

For all of Steve Tignor's reports from the U.S. Open, click here.

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