It’s too soon to be saying welcome back to the American men at Roland Garros but at least the seventh-seeded Blake put the U.S. on the map at this year’s event by winning his first- round match 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 against Rainer Schuettler. And that’s way more than we can say about how last year’s tournament went for the guys who were supposed to wave the red, white and blue as none reached the second round. The Yanks went 0-9 in first-round matches.
After beating Schuettler maybe Blake was having a little fun when he said the American male contingent of players at the season’s second major was already showing success because after last year’s early wipeout the bar had been set low enough that it could be cleared after just one win by Blake on the first day of play in Paris. It’s kind of humorous how winning one or two rounds on clay is regarded as improvement for the American guys, but that’s how it is these days.
Even this year as the top American in the draw courtesy of Andy Roddick staying home to nurse a right shoulder injury, Blake has no pressure on him from media and fans in his home country and I assume he is not putting any pressure on himself either. His first-round match against Schuettler was a bonus as the German has certainly dissipated from the days when he was the 2003 Australian Open finalist. If things go well for Blake here he could possibly make the second week. Oh, how U.S. tennis fans would relish that as it would be wonderful for them if Blake can get to the quarterfinals. Blake’s chances on clay are at least slightly better than they have been in the past as he attempts to surpass his best showing at Roland Garros, which was reaching the third round in 2006.
Blake will play talented Latvian Ernests Gulbis in the second round and could face crafty Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia in the third round. Other names of note in his quarter of the draw are Marcos Baghdatis, Michael Llodra, Tomas Berdych, Paul-Henri Matthieu, Guillermo Canas and Novak Djokovic.
Blake’s a top-10 player but at Roland Garros pretty much any match could be a danger zone for him. He looked fairly steady against Schuettler but the match also showed his vulnerabilities. He led in the final set 5-1 before pulling it out in the tiebreaker and I know that his Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe was wondering why he allowed that monumental lead to slip. After the match Blake viewed what happened as something of a positive, saying that his opponent “played like the Schuettler of old” and that the German made him work for the win.
Blake said that his first-round match had its “ups and downs” and that he was happy he handled the down side well and walked off court a winner. I guess I’m willing to give that to him but it’s also fair to say that relatively speaking he had an easy day at the office against a not-so-great opponent.
I believe that Blake is a better player than he was last year and I credit his involvement in the winning Davis Cup team effort last year for making him a better player. Blake, Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan worked very hard for many years to achieve that Davis Cup victory and having helped deliver a record 32nd Davis Cup title to the U.S. provided a tremendous boost of confidence for Blake.
This year Blake’s reached the final at Houston on that funny green stuff we Americans call clay. He also advanced to the quarterfinals in Rome on the traditional red clay, which is a pretty good showing. For the season, Blake has showed some consistency by also reaching the finals at Delray Beach, where he suffered an odd loss to newcomer Kei Nishikori of Japan. He also made it to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, San Jose, Indian Wells and Miami.
From how he’s played in 2008 Blake has shown he is continuing to improve. I strongly subscribe to the theory that a player at age 28 like Blake is should still be getting better. Blake would help his chances by strengthening his net game. Instead of staying back and banging a lot of ground strokes I would like to see him use his capabilities and take short balls and come in -- if he would do that he’d make playing tennis much easier on himself.
Where the Americans most falter on clay is that they lack the patience for this style of tennis. They run out of patience and they try to hit a winner when the opportunity isn’t really there. And then there’s the issue that the American guys don’t truly know how to slide well on the surface. But considering that Blake grew up on hard courts, he’s doing fairly well on this gritty stuff.
It’s not like American men have always struggled at the French Open. The greatest generation of American players was quite adept on the surface. Jim Courier won Roland Garros twice and Michael Chang and Andre Agassi won it once. And even Pete Sampras threatened for a title here by reaching the semifinals once in his career. These accomplishments in no way should embarrass today’s group of U.S. male players but the last generation of guys were simply better players -- Hall of Famers to be sure.
When I look at Blake it’s fair to say that he may have hit his career ceiling. But that’s not a negative at all. If he has hit his ceiling it’s a very comfortable ceiling where he can stay in the top 10, make a lot of money and experience some very pleasurable moments on the court. But I don’t feel he’s likely to win a major -- that ship has probably sailed for him. But his career is a fine one, it’s far from over, and the challenge at present is making hay on clay.
Rafael Nadal is currently ranked fourth in the world, but has had a dominant run lately as he has won seven of the last eight French Open titles. Mary Carrillo thinks we’re in store for a Nadal-Djokovic final.
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