By Ann Liguori
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James Blake, no matter how far he gets in the U.S. Open draw, always brings his heart and soul to the court -- and New Yorkers eat that up.
At 32, the hometown veteran -- born in Yonkers, member of the Harlem Junior Tennis Program from ages 5-10 and attended Fairfield (Conn) High School -- is still pounding the pavement. And this year, thanks to a wild card entry, Blake continues to enjoy boisterous support from his many local fans.
Blake advanced to the second round on Monday with a four set, rain-interrupted win over Lukas Lacko. It was his first victory in a grand slam since he won in the first round here last year.
His best results here are ancient history by now -- two quarter-final appearances, losing to Andre Agassi in 2005 and then Roger Federer in '06. But I can still hear the roar of the crowd and recall the electricity felt in the Ashe court during those matches, particularly during his night match against Agassi in '05.
"I remember someone was actually just talking to me about it a couple days ago when I was here in the locker room saying how high the quality was," Blake reminisced. "I think the tiebreaker, it was almost all winners. There were almost no unforced errors. Both of us standing on the baseline toe to toe just getting after each other. That's a fun match to be a part of… Obviously I wish I had won it, but there's got to be someone that goes down and doesn't quite get over the finish line. That day Andre played better.
"But it was a great match. I'm happy to be a part of it. I wish I'd have won, but, yeah, I guess you could call it a win, like I said, for tennis. But for me it was just a match that I played well and lost."
Perhaps those memories continue to inspire Blake, who has had more than his share of physical challenges starting back when he was 13 years of age and was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, curvature of the spine, in which he wore a back brace 18 hours a day. In 2004, he slipped into the net post during a practice in Rome and fractured his neck vertebrae. Many of this is documented in a book he wrote in 2007 called "Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life."
Blake reached a career-high ranking of No. 4 back in 2006 but he hasn't won a tournament since 2007 in New Haven.
In 2010, he missed part of the clay court season with a knee injury.
Knee surgery last season got in his way; shoulder injuries as well. But he says he feels his best since 2008-9: "My knee was giving me problems for a while and I didn't bring it up a lot. I didn't want to talk about it because it was something that would nag at me. Then it would go, I could be okay for half a match, and then it starts getting worse. Then I know the next day is going to be terrible…It just eventually got to a point where I couldn't even make it through a match and it got worse and worse. Eventually the only option was surgery."
"The shoulder feels better than ever; knee feels better than ever," he added. " I'm actually feeling great. It's a really good feeling. That's been exciting for me the last I'd say three or four weeks during the summer where I actually feel like I can move the way I used to or the way I need to to compete here.
"Now for it to really feel the way it does, I feel like I can move and be effective with my legs. Without my legs I'm a pretty average to below average player here. I need those to be strong. The way it's feeling now, I want to just keep on playing."
"You know," continued Blake, "I can't believe that it's been I think 12 years I have been playing here just about every year. You know, it still doesn't feel normal. It's still an incredible feeling to be here and to be doing what I dreamed of as a kid.
"It's a good feeling. You know, every time I come back here it's still sort of the goose bumps walking out on Louis Armstrong or Arthur Ashe. I'm excited, and I get a lot of ticket requests. I get to see my fans and friends having a good time. That definitely keeps my spirits up, keeps my head up throughout the whole match."
We're happy you're still playing, James Blake!
And we hope he can rekindle some magic of old against his next opponent, the No. 24 seed from Spain, Marcel Granollers.
How far do you think Blake can go? Be heard in the comments below!
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