Thursday, February 27, 2014

Blake downs childhood idol McEnroe for title

James Blake, 34, beat John McEnroe, 55, to win the Champions
Shootout in Sacramento. Both grew up in the New York area
and still live there. Photo by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- James Blake and John McEnroe both grew up in the New York area and became professional tennis players.
   Otherwise, they have little in common.
   Blake is 34, black and right-handed. A classy gentleman in the mold of his idol, Arthur Ashe, Blake forged an excellent, but not Hall of Fame, career. He reached three Grand Slam singles quarterfinals, peaked at No. 4 in the world and helped the United States win its last Davis Cup championship (2007).   
   McEnroe is 55, white and left-handed. A temperamental genius with the racket, he captured 17 Grand Slam titles (seven in singles, nine in doubles and one in mixed doubles), led the United States to five Davis Cup titles and was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999.
   Despite the age difference, McEnroe strongly influenced Blake when the latter was a junior in Fairfield, Conn.
   "My parents and my coach probably will tell you there may have been a negative inspiration with him at times," Blake said with a laugh after beating McEnroe, who grew up in Queens and lives in Manhattan, 6-3 to win the Champions Shootout on Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena. "I was a bit of a brat when I was 12 years old, and that's when he was (at the end of his career). He was my example when they said, 'You can't act like that and win.' And I said, 'Well, he sure does.' I would use him as my excuse for why I could act out. Eventually, I got out of that.
   "His is more of a show now, and he's having fun with it, but his intensity definitely inspired me. That's why I was such a perfectionist as a kid, and it carried over to the tour. I just hid it better. I was better at making sure the people didn't see how much the fire was burning inside me."
Pete Sampras, playing with a sore shoulder, lost to Blake in the
semifinals. Photo by Paul Bauman
   The Champions Shootout was the eighth of 12 stops, all in the United States in February and March, on the PowerShares Series. Only former Grand Slam singles finalists or top-five players over age 30 are eligible.
   In Wednesday's semifinals, Blake defeated 42-year-old Pete Sampras, playing with a sore shoulder, 6-3 and McEnroe topped 43-year-old Jim Courier -- you guessed it -- 6-3.
   Sampras collected 14 Grand Slam singles titles (second all-time behind Roger Federer's 17) and Courier four. They were inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2007 and 2005, respectively.
   McEnroe clearly was the star of the show in front of an announced crowd of 2,460 with his spectacular shotmaking and his theatrics, not necessarily in that order.
   He displayed his trademark temper in the semifinals and sardonic sense of humor in the final.
   McEnroe's biggest outburst came at 3-3 in the semis when a Courier forehand was called good on the baseline. McEnroe slammed his racket on the court, yelled at the linesman and swore at the chair umpire.
   He stayed calm in the final and, while serving at 3-4, cracked about a persistent hum in the arena, "Is the carpet up there clean yet?"
   The crowd's support for McEnroe occasionally miffed Courier and Blake, who, after all, were playing in their home country, too. 
Jim Courier fell to McEnroe in the semis.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   After Courier slugged a forehand crosscourt passing shot, the U.S. Davis Cup captain (coach) quipped to the audience, "Thank you for your lukewarm applause. I appreciate it."
   During the final, Blake admonished the fans at McEnroe's end of the court, "Am I playing against everyone on that side?"
   Blake, a resident of Westport, Conn., only six months removed from the ATP World Tour, had too much speed and power for McEnroe. Still, the gray-haired McEnroe put on dazzling performance with his corkscrew serve, deft volleys, feathery drop shots and pinpoint passing shots.  
   "It's incredible, the way he can still move, the way he can still serve, and his hands," marveled Blake, who won the last title of his active career a lob away from Sleep Train Arena at the Natomas Racquet Club in the 2012 Sacramento Challenger. "I think his hands will be that way until he's in a wheelchair. It's amazing how good his hands are.
   "I'm amazed by how great a shape he stays in and how well he can move around the court. I pray that I can move and serve like that when I'm 55."
   With his magical hands, McEnroe has a unique hitting style.
   "No one else can get away with it because no one has those gifts with his hands," observed Blake, who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., four months after McEnroe won his first Grand Slam singles title in the 1979 U.S. Open in nearby Flushing Meadows. "He's found a way to make the most out of it and master his craft.
  "It's fun to play something like that because I didn't see that on the tour. There are no true serve-and-volleyers, and there are no guys who use that kind of craftiness as well as he does."

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