Monday, October 8, 2012

Blake shows he can still play at 32

James Blake (second from left) beat Mischa Zverev (third from left) Sunday
in the Sacramento Challenger final. Emcee Brad Gilbert is at far left and
tournament director Brian Martinez at far right. Photo by Paul Bauman   
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- James Blake isn't quite ready to get another job or be a stay-at-home father.
   The American veteran, who will turn 33 in December, showed in the $100,000 RelyAid Natomas Challenger that he still has some tennis left in him. Blake, seeded second, fought off unseeded Mischa Zverev of Germany 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 Sunday at the Natomas Racquet Club for the title.
   "It's nice to still be able to move around at 32 and do this for a living," Blake told the crowd afterward.
Doubles champions Rhyne Williams (far left) and Tennys Sandgren (holding
the trophy) pose with Gilbert and Martinez. Photo by Paul Bauman
   In an All-American doubles final, former University of Tennessee teammates Tennys Sandgren and Rhyne Williams saved four match points to defeat Devin Britton and Austin Krajicek 4-6, 6-4, 12-10 tiebreak for their first Challenger doubles crown. Both teams were unseeded.     
   Blake, ranked No. 97 entering the tournament after reaching a career-high No. 4 in 2006, underwent surgery on his right knee last November and earlier this year seriously considered retiring.
   "Without my legs, I'm a below-average player," he told ESPN.com in August at the U.S. Open. "To be honest, I was worried that my knee wasn't coming around. I was going to give it this summer. I was thinking that might be it."
   Love of the game brought him back, and his knee responded.
   Blake's life off the court also is looking up. He became a father when his fiancee, Emily Snyder, gave birth to a daughter, Riley, on June 10. The wedding is scheduled for November in California.       
   "Winning here is great," said Blake, who narrowly lost to 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic in last year's Sacramento final, "but nothing puts a smile on my face like seeing my daughter."
   Zverev had plenty of reason to smile, too.
   "I went to the Golden Gate Bridge and got to the final, so it was a good week," said the private pilot, who twice rented a plane and went for a spin during the week.
   Zverev, a 25-year-old left-hander, was born in Moscow but moved to Germany at 4. His father, who played Davis Cup for the Soviet from 1982 to 1987, received an attractive coaching offer there. Mischa climbed to No. 45 in the world in 2009 before injuries derailed his career. He was No. 168 entering the Natomas Challenger.      
   Blake and Zverev enthralled the crowd with vicious groundstrokes, amazing gets and outstanding athleticism. Zverev also volleyed crisply.
   The first two sets were almost exact opposites. There were two service breaks in each set, and both provided leads of 3-1 and 5-1.
   The only break of the third set came in the last game. From 15-15, Blake ripped a forehand winner off Zverev's second serve and a backhand cross-court passing shot off Zverev's first delivery for 15-40. After Zverev missed his first serve, Blake slugged a deep forehand, and Zverev sent a forehand long to end the battle. 
   Blake committed no double-faults in the match and won 20 of 23 points (87 percent) on his serve in the third set, including all 11 on his first serve.
   Looking ahead, Blake isn't eyeing a return to the top 20.
   "I never make ranking goals," he said. "I just want to get better and play as long as I can."

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