It was a seemingly indelible image: the face of U.S. tennis buried in Andy Roddick's hands, a white towel draped over his head like a shroud. He had fled Arthur Ashe Stadium after his shocking loss to Gilles Muller on Day 2 of the 2005 U.S. Open, and he sat for 10 minutes without moving. To see him then was to think the American men were done for the year. But then Andre Agassi played without back pain. Then Robby Ginepri's hard work paid off. Then, in the most delicious turn of all, James Blake dismantled Spain's Rafael Nadal, and the U.S. boomlet was on.
Who'd have guessed it? Nadal and Roger Federer had dominated the tour all year, and an August win over Agassi had established Nadal as a hard-court force. At this time last year Blake was unsure whether he could return the most softly hit ball as he took part in Arthur Ashe Kids' Day, half of his face paralyzed by shingles. Everyone else was getting ready to play the Open. Blake thought, I've got nothing to do.
Having suffered through a year in which he also broke his neck in practice and watched his father, Thomas, die of cancer, the 25-year-old Blake abruptly produced the match of his career last Saturday afternoon. Known before his travails as a talented, streaky player with exploitable weaknesses, Blake dispatched Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. Nadal, ranked No. 2, is already a bullying presence at age 19, with a blistering forehand and the speed to run down almost any ball. But Blake, with a shored-up backhand and breathtaking audacity, attacked Nadal's strength from the start, matching him forehand for forehand. In the fourth set it became clear that Blake had accomplished what not even Federer has been able to do this year. He took Nadal's will. Blake won 20 of the last 21 points. Asked if he would stick around a day or two, a disconsolate Nadal said, "I want to go home tonight."
But Blake didn't send the boy packing without help. Before Saturday's match he sat in the locker room with Agassi and got a full report on Nadal: how his second serve comes in high and tricky, how it's best to establish a rhythm against him, to remain patient. "It helped a lot," Blake said, and he returned the favor by telling Agassi all he knew about Tomas Berdych. That evening Agassi beat Berdych in four sets, and by then Blake had had enough time to understand that his father's death and his own illness and injury had made him a better player. Now he knows that tennis isn't everything, so he doesn't press. Before Thomas Blake died, he told his son he was proud of him. "That was it for me," James says, "him telling me that."
So, no, when Blake won on Saturday, and then again on Monday to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, neither was the greatest moment of his life. He has lost plenty, but he's gained a bit too. As thousands of fans shouted for him in Ashe Stadium after he disposed of Nadal, it all ran through his mind: the last year, Kids' Day, seeing his mom, Betty, in the stands, hearing a buddy tell him last fall, "Yeah, you pulled out of the Open, but you'll win it next year."
"It seems like years ago," Blake says. "The fact that I'm here, doing well? It hits me after matches, when I still have the crowd cheering. I'm thinking, You know, this is really cool."
Not So Sweet Sixteen
The Next Maria walked off the court in Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday, blonde ponytail swaying in the sun. The crowd booed until she was gone. It wasn't so much that Nicole Vaidisova, 16 years old and this season's pick as the future of women's tennis, had blown a 5-2 lead in the first set and a 4-1 lead in the tiebreaker, or that she'd then flung her racket and bounced her drink bottle off the net post. But after losing 7-6, 7-5 to Nadia Petrova, Vaidisova drilled a ball into the stands--her best forehand in a while--forcing fans to duck. "I don't think she's in control of her emotions," said her coach Nick Bollettieri. "That's got to come to a screeching halt."
Petulant teens are nothing new to tennis, of course, but the stakes are higher with the 28th-ranked Vaidisova, who rode her clean strokes and massive serve to the fourth round of the Open. The 5'11" native of Prague says her goal is "to be the best." She apologized after her tantrum, but for now such behavior seems to be part of the package. "People who never care that they lost," she says, "have never won so much."