Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Blake having a ball, even in minor leagues

   Playing in front of a few hundred spectators at the Natomas Racquet Club in Sacramento doesn't exactly compare to battling Andre Agassi before 20,000 screaming fans and a national, prime-time television audience in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
   But James Blake isn't complaining. It's still professional tennis.
   "I don't mind," the top-seeded Blake said Monday after practicing with third seed and fellow American Sam Querrey for the $100,000 Rely Aid Natomas Racquet Club Challenger. "I love competing. I haven't played since the U.S. Open (one month ago). I've just been training and wanted to get some practice in. At this point in my career, I didn't feel like going to Asia (for ATP World Tour events). I came here to get ready for the European swing and gear up for next year.
   "It's still fun to me. There are great players here like Querrey and (Ivo) Karlovic. I'm feeling great now, the best I've felt in the last two years, and I'm excited about that. Tour level or Challenger level, it just feels good to be on the court."
   Blake, who splits his time between his childhood home of Fairfield, Conn., and training base of Tampa, Fla., is scheduled to meet Amer Delic, the 2003 NCAA singles champion for Illinois from Bosnia and Herzegovina, today at 4:30 p.m. or later in the first round. 
   Ranked a career-high No. 4 in 2006, Blake plunged to No. 173 in March because of chronic tendinitis in his right knee. He "briefly considered" retiring last year but has rebounded to No. 75.
   "I was opposed to taking Advil or Motrin, but it was not getting better," said Blake, who will turn 32 in December. "Eventually, I broke down and took Motrin, which made a big difference. The knee is not perfect, but it's much better. It doesn't have to be perfect. Nothing is."
   Blake undoubtedly has the most unusual background in professional tennis. How many players do you know who:
   --Have a white, English mother and African-American father?
   --Were diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at 13 and wore a full-length back brace for 18 hours a day, though not while playing tennis, for five years?
   --Attended Harvard for two years, becoming the top-ranked player in the country before turning pro?
   --Within two months in 2004, broke his neck during practice, lost his father to stomach cancer and developed zoster (shingles)?
   Blake was injured when he slipped on a wet clay court in Rome while racing to return a drop shot and struck the net post. Zoster, a viral disease often caused by stress, temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face and affected his balance.
   But he rebounded from the horrific sequence of events to have the best years of his career. His 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) loss to Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinals is considered perhaps the greatest match in the tournament's history. Almost all of the 20,000 fans in attendance stayed until the pulsating match ended at 1:09 a.m.
   Blake was named the Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, again reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2006 and helped the United States end its longest Davis Cup title drought in history, 12 years, in 2007.
   "I was on the right path (before 2004), but I got injured," said the 6-foot-1 Blake, who has a fearsome serve and forehand and tremendous speed. "(The bouts of adversity) gave me great perspective on my career and life in general. Spending time with my family and friends game me peace on the court, knowing that people appreciate me as more than just a tennis player."
   Blake's 2007 book, "Breaking Back: How I lost Everything and Won Back My Life," reached No. 15 on the New York Times' bestseller list. The following year, he was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year for his fundraising efforts on behalf of cancer research.
   Blake isn't sure how much longer he'll play.
   "I always said the body or mind will determine that," he said. "One won't be able to function, probably the body. I hope for another year, but we'll see."
    Gonzalez withdraws -- Former world No. 5 Fernando Gonzalez withdrew from the Natomas Challenger because of a sinus infection, tournament spokesman Glenn Davis said.
   Gonzalez, a 31-year-old Chilean, has plunged to No. 300 after undergoing right hip surgery one year ago today. He reached the 2007 Australian Open final, losing to Roger Federer, to climb to a career-high No. 5.
   Monday's results -- Only one main-draw match was completed before rain halted play for the day. American Bobby Reynolds, seeded fourth and coming off the singles and doubles titles in the $50,000 Tulsa, Okla., Challenger three weeks ago, eked out a 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory over Carlos Salamanca of Colombia.
   Salamanca, the runner-up in the $15,000 Natomas Futures in 2009, served for the match at 5-4 in the third set and twice was within two points of victory. But Reynolds, 29, of Acworth, Ga., prevailed with deep service returns against the 6-foot-5 left-hander and steady groundstrokes.
   Steve Johnson, the reigning NCAA singles champion from USC, defeated Carsten Ball, who beat Salamanca for the 2009 Natomas Futures title, 6-4, 6-4 to advance to the main draw. The longtime friends and practice partners from Orange County met for the first time.
   Johnson has won 12 consecutive matches, including titles in $10,000 tournaments in Claremont and Costa Mesa. Including college matches, he had a 39-match winning streak snapped by former UCLA rival Daniel Kosakowski in the final of the $15,000 Park Terrance Futures in Sacramento in June.
   Johnson is taking this semester off to play pro tournaments as an amateur but plans to return to USC in the spring. He'll try to join Stanford's Paul Goldstein (1995-98) as the only men to play on four national championship teams and earn All-America honors all four years.

At Natomas Racquet Club

In Sacramento
Final-round singles qualifying

   Steve Johnson, United States, def. Carsten Ball (5), Australia, 6-4, 6-4. Michael Venus, New Zealand, def. Simon Stadler (6), Germany, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Blake Strode, United States, def. Jamie Baker (3), Great Britain, 6-0, 6-2. Pierre-Ludovic Duclos (4), Canada, def. Alex Bogdanovic (7), Great Britain, 7-6 (7), 6-2.
First-round singles
   Bobby Reynolds (4), United States, def. Carlos Salamanca, Colombia, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. Alex Kuznetsov, United States, leads Simon Greul, Germany, 4-6, 6-4, 4-3 (postponed by rain).
First-round doubles
   Carsten Ball and Chris Guccione, Australia, def. Treat Conrad Huey, Philippines, and Izak Van Der Merwe (2), South Africa, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 10-4 tiebreak. Travis Rettenmaier, United States, and Simon Stadler, Germany, def. Denis Gremelmayr, Germany, and Bjorn Phau, Germany, 6-3, 3-6, 10-8 tiebreak.
Tuesday’s schedule
(Beginning at 10 a.m.)
Center Court

   Smyczek vs. Duclos, Greul vs. Kuznetsov (to finish), Sock vs. Ward (8), Blake (1) vs. Delic not before 4:30 p.m.
Court 1
   Nielsen vs. Monroe, Grigelis vs. Querrey (3), Fischer vs. Karlovic (2), Grigelis and Ignatik vs. Duclos and Hubble (final-round qualifying).
Court 2
   Strode vs. Van der Merwe (6), Ignatik vs. Wolmarans, Phau (7) vs. Farah, Guccione vs. Cabal.
Court 3
   Borvanov vs. Johnson, Pospisil (5) vs. De Bakker, Gremelmayr vs. Baker, Venus vs. Estrella.

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