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TennisOne Lessons

Roddick Tops a Fading Blake

Kim Shanley

Andy Roddick and James Blake, the two lions of American tennis over the last several years, joined battle again in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open yesterday. Roddick, dominating with his serve (won 94% of his first serves) and taking advantage of a generous helping of unforced errors by Blake, won 6-3, 7-5. 

James Blake on whether or not he is an under achiever.

The result was consistent with their head-to-head record, which Roddick now leads 8 to 3, and Roddick’s advantage in ATP ranking over Blake, with Roddick at #8 and Blake at #158.  Former number 4 in the world, Blake’s ranking has plummeted with a series of injuries, most recently a bad knee and a case of shingles.  Blake’s made some progress this year overcoming his physical problems, and was 4-4 going into Sunday’s match against Roddick.  When Blake broke Roddick in the 2nd set to go up 3-0, the fans could see the flashes of the Blake of old.  Lightning-bolt forehands and sparkling court speed were all on display. Yet between points, Blake walked with a slight stiffness and sitting during the change-overs, Blake seemed disconsolate and lost.  All of his body language communicated: something is not right.

Andy Roddick has always been a gamer, and perhaps sensing Blake’s fragile confidence at 0-3, was out of his chair early on the change-over, ferociously pacing the baseline, showing his opponent he was anxious to do battle and was not thinking for a second of conceding the second set.  Roddick proceeded to hold his serve at love, and then immediately broke Blake’s serve in the next game. The 2nd set continued to be a close battle until 5-5 when unfortunately Blake, perhaps still feeling the affects of the knee injury—and certainly feeling the bumps and bruises of playing 11 years on the tour—seemed to give-away the match to his long-time rival and friend.  Serving at 5-5, Blake threw in 2 double-faults and committed six unforced groundstroke errors. These errors were truly unforced, as Blake, displayed once again a career-long penchant for going for too much on several balls. With Blake broken, Roddick easily served out the match.

The “What’s Wrong” Question

Roddick and Blake are good friends, and both generously praised each other during their post-match interviews.  But both these tennis lions growled at their detractors who continuously ask them if they’ve been under-achievers.  And both men no doubt should be granted some forgiveness for their touchiness. If anyone were asked “what’s wrong” in every interview, we might all get a little surly.  After all, Roddick has achieved the number one ranking, won a Grand Slam title, while Blake has reached number 4 in the world. Together, they led the U.S. to the Davis Cup title in 2007.  So, how, each man said in his own way, is this underachieving?  Defending Blake, Roddick said, “You know, it’s easier and more obvious to talk about what someone hasn’t done as opposed to appreciate how hard it is to get to 4 in the world.”  Sounding the same theme, Blake said about Roddick, “People say that he should have won more slams or should have done this or that. How about giving him credit for what he has done?”

Andy Roddick assesses Blake's career.

Assessing Blake’s Career

Despite Andy Roddick’s warning to critics that if they want “to look down” on what he and James Blake have accomplished, they should be “very, very good at whatever it is they do,” I will offer a few thoughts on Blake’s career.

"He-Went-For-Too-Much" 

Whenever a tennis player reaches the last stage of his career, as James Blake himself implicitly acknowledges, it’s natural to look over the span of that career and come up with an overall assessment. James Blake is still playing and still trying to bring himself back from the netherworld of being ranked in the 150’s and having to play qualifiers for tournaments in which he used to be a top ten seed, but if I had to write his career epitaph it would be “He Went For Too Much.” 

His Davis Cup coach Patrick McEnroe commented on Blake’s commitment to a high-risk style of play many times, and it is this tendency, more than any other factor, that has led critics to level the under-achievement charge against Blake.  This was once again the primary cause of Blake’s defeat at the hands of Roddick on Monday. Blake was not content to simply try to get Roddick’s first serve into play, and over-hit and sprayed return after return. As a result, Blake won only 6% of the points on Roddick’s first serve. In contrast, Roddick, who does know how to play percentage tennis, won 48% of the points on Blake’s first serve. Even granting that Roddick has a much more powerful and effective first serve than Blake, the point-won stat difference reveals one of the key differences in both men’s approach to the game—and the results they’ve been able to produce in their careers.

Roddick plays excellent defense, and rarely misses a rally ball, where the goal is simply to keep or return the rally to a neutral point.  It’s hard to fathom why, with foot speed and athleticism, Blake could never adopt more of this high-percentage play outlook.  In the interview after his loss, Blake gave his own explanation, “I can’t play ways that other guys play. I just don’t have that skill set….But if you play high-risk tennis for a long time and it’s your best game, then it’s playing the percentages in the long run.”  Watching James Blake lose dozens of matches implementing this strategy over the course of his career, and seeing him once again gift a win to Andy Roddick in the 5-5 game with two double-faults and six unforced groundstroke errors, I do think it’s fair to question Blake’s self-assessment. 

Click photo: While Blake plays at only one speed, Roddick has learned to play defense as well as offense.

The Aggressive Margin

The take-away for recreational players is to try to build a game around what Patrick McEnroe calls the aggressive margin. This means hitting and constructing points with aggression, putting pressure on your opponent, but doing it in a way that maintains an adequate safety margin.  Andy Roddick can certainly do this against all but the top players in the world—and his record of success against this level of opponent speaks for itself. In the match on Sunday, Roddick didn’t have to dip very far into the safety margin to defeat Blake, keeping balls in play, and waiting, as Roddick said afterwards, for Blake to self-destruct.

Roddick’s career is still holding at the top of the game, but some critics are wondering if Roddick’s aggressive margin, particularly in his ground game, is too heavily weighted to safety and not enough to aggression. Particularly, his reluctance to take the heavy spin off of his massive forehands and hit through the court, like a Federer or Sodlering.  So let’s hold off drafting any epitaphs for America’s reigning number one player. He’s still working hard and is still determined to add a few more highlights to his illustrious career.

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