Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With all due respect to Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, James Blake appears to be laying his claim to the American men's tennis throne.
It's Blake who's already garnered two titles on the ATP this season and is fresh off a final appearance at the first Masters Series event of the year, the Pacific Life Open, where, unfortunately, he lost to the great Roger Federer in straight sets at Indian Wells.
But by reaching the final in the California desert, Blake became the first African-American man since Arthur Ashe to crack the men's top 10, which now features a trio of Americans for the first time since 2000.
The amicable Blake has been playing superb tennis since the middle of last year and has been rewarded with a career-high No. 9 spot in the world rankings, just ahead of the former No. 1 Agassi and only five spots behind the former top-ranked Roddick, who, like Agassi, has yet to reach a final in 2006.
The 26-year-old Blake is off to a 19-5 start this year and has appeared in finals in three of his seven tournaments, including victories in Sydney and Las Vegas. He may have lost to Federer at Indian Wells, but opened plenty of eyes with a huge semifinal victory over Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal at the prestigious Pac Life event. As a matter of fact, he straight-setted the reigning Roland Garros champion Nadal, who was riding a hot nine-match winning streak, including a stunning title match victory over Federer in Dubai earlier this month.
FYI, Blake also beat Nadal (in the 3rd round) at last year's U.S. Open and is 2-0 versus the excitable lefty.
James Blake is inside the top 10 for the first time in his career.
Blake is an eight-year pro who turned his career around last year with the help of a couple titles and a trip into the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, where he blew a two-sets-to-love lead over Agassi before ultimately dropping a five-set epic at Flushing Meadows. It marked his best-ever showing at a Grand Slam tourney.
This year, the resurgent Blake has beaten a former world No. 1, in Lleyton Hewitt, and, of course, the aspiring No. 1 Nadal, who, by all accounts, appears to be the top threat to the amazing Federer's throne. The Yonkers, New York native stopped the two-time major titlist Hewitt in the Vegas finale three weeks ago, marking his first victory against the fiery Aussie in seven tries.
Sure, you can sit here and say that Blake has yet to do anything at the majors (has never reached a Grand Slam semi) and he's a dismal 1-12 combined against Roddick and Agassi, including 0-8 versus A-Rod, and who could argue with you. But the athletic racquet man is certainly playing the best tennis of any of the Americans right now.
Blake's a solid 41-11 since last August, including four titles and the quality run into the U.S. Open quarters. And his stellar 2005 campaign came on the heels of his nightmarish 2004.
Two years ago, Blake lost his beloved father, Thomas, to cancer; suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck after running into a net post during a practice session in Rome; and fell ill with Zoster, a condition that affected his hearing, his vision and paralyzed him on one side of his face.
He was ranked as low as 210th in the world in April of last year.
Prior to joining the ATP, Blake played two years of tennis at Harvard, where he finished as the No. 1 collegiate player in the country in his sophomore year. He possesses great speed, is a quality returner of serve and is blessed with a monster forehand. The knock on him in the past had everything to do with the mental aspect of the game. Dare I say he had a tendency to choke.
But Blake does have as much talent as just about anyone in the game, he just needs to carry confidence onto the court and maintain that mental strength throughout his big matches, which is exactly what he's been doing in recent months.
With Roddick struggling in the early part of this season and the aging Agassi barely playing any tennis at all, it would appear as though Blake might have the inside track as the highest-ranked American this year.
Blake is rich and famous, has his game in top gear and is dating the beautiful Jennifer Scholle. Simply put, life is pretty good for JB right now.