Blake, Federer share unparalleled off-the-court grace

The evolution of James Blake, one of the most dignified players off the court, has begun to manifest itself at this year's Australian Open. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Given their personalities, the Australian Open quarterfinal match between Roger Federer and James Blake should start with each man taking 10 paces and wheeling around before the first shot.

Two of the biggest gentlemen in tennis will face each other for the eighth time Wednesday. So far, their duels have been completely one-sided. If fact, Federer has won 40 straight matches against American players -- a streak Blake would love to end.

It's a difficult matchup, to say the least. Blake plays high-risk, big-shot tennis with a narrow margin for error against a craftsman like Federer, who seems to delight in flashing a paring knife against a machete. Blake has won only one set in their seven previous matches.

The 28-year-old from Connecticut will go into the contest as a heavy underdog against the man who's at a dozen Grand Slam titles and counting. But a few things have changed for Blake since Federer last beat him in a lopsided final in Cincinnati last year.

Blake broke through to win his first career five-set match at the 2007 U.S. Open after a nine-match streak of futility, and in December, he outlasted Russia's Mikhail Youzhny in Davis Cup play to help the U.S. sweep to its first title in 12 years.

Last week in Melbourne, Blake knocked down another target in his personal shooting gallery, coming back from a 2-0 deficit for the first time ever against France's Sebastien Grosjean. Blake, who was down a double break in the fourth set and 4-1 in the tiebreak, called it his most satisfying comeback.

Commentator and two-time Australian Open winner Jim Courier also found it significant. "That was a monumental win over Sebastien, because [Blake] was counted out by pretty much everybody," Courier said. "And Sebastien's not a player who's known for mental weakness in those situations, either. He's good at closing guys out.

"It was very pleasing to see James come through. I wouldn't say I'm surprised, I expected that Davis Cup to manifest itself somewhere, taking that confidence from winning that huge match. I'm happy for him, it's a great way for him to start the year, proving something to himself, not that he needed to prove it to anyone else."

Blake had no letdown after that emotional high, dispatching Croatian up-and-comer Marin Cilic in straight sets. Seeded 12th here, he will vault back into the top 10 after a two-month absence next week no matter what happens against Federer.

Federer had a few mental lapses in his fourth-round match against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, but in general seemed to bounce back well from his strenuous five-set effort against Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic.

Looking forward to Blake, Federer acknowledged his evolution over the last couple of years. "[Blake] plays incredibly aggressive tennis. Improved his serve a lot, his backhand. So have to be very careful. I know his game sort of suits my game. I've had some great matches against him where I always play my very best. So we'll see how it goes this time around. Definitely got to play offensive myself, put him on the back foot as well.

"I'm excited to play against him. He's one of the nicest guys on tour, very respected on tour, very sportsmanlike."

Despite the differences in their tennis résumés, Federer and Blake share a certain grace not always easy to find at the top level of sport. At the trophy ceremony at Indian Wells in 2006, runner-up Blake told the crowd that Federer was the only player who sent him a note when he was in the hospital two years before, recovering from a scary practice accident that left him with a cracked vertebra in his neck.

Both are much appreciated by reporters and tour handlers who often have to coax players to do any more than the minimum off the court. They're both legendary in press conferences, for slightly different reasons.

Federer, clearly committed to his unofficial role as ambassador for the sport, spends twice as long as most other players speaking with the press after matches, first holding an English-language session, then a mixed French, German and Swiss-German session, then recording radio interviews.

ATP staffers still wax eloquent about an Australian Open broadcast that took place late at night U.S. time, in which they'd arranged for Andre Agassi to talk with Federer via satellite from Las Vegas before a match. When the telecast was delayed interminably because a college basketball game went to multiple overtimes, Federer calmly sat down and ate a sandwich rather than fretting.

Blake's lengthy, thoughtful answers stretch tournament stenographers to the limit. Like Federer, he's constantly pelted with the same questions -- except that in Blake's case, they are often about an athletic ceiling he's hit rather than a milestone of greatness. Also like Federer, he is unfailingly patient.

After beating Cilic, Blake was asked for the umpteenth time how much he would regret never advancing past a Slam quarterfinal, one of the last important frontiers left in front of him. It would have been easy for him to offer up a pat phrase or get irritable. Instead, he delivered the following soliloquy:

I'm already so proud of my career that I won't worry about it at all. I mean, to have been at a point once where a doctor laughed at my idea of being a pro tennis player to being in a situation in 2004 [with the neck injury] of them telling me I'm probably never going to play again, to be in the second week of a Grand Slam at all is something impressive.

To be a five-foot-tall, 16-year-old kid that was about 95 pounds, had no dreams of playing pro tennis, to be in the second week of a Slam is something I'm unbelievably proud of, the fact that I kept working as hard as I did to get here.

And if my talent isn't good enough to get through the Roger Federers or whoever else, Andre Agassis, who have beaten me in second weeks, I'll still hold my head high and say I'm proud of what I did, I'm proud of pushing them as hard as I did and being a part of these great tournaments.

I think I still have a newspaper clipping of when I was about 12 or 13 years old, when I was -- I think I was the Athlete of the Week in the Connecticut Post. It said in there that my dream is to play in the U.S. Open. Not to win a round, not to get to the second week, not to win, it was just to play in it. I've surpassed that a little bit now.

A lot of people would think that every time this happens it seems normal to me now. Every time I walk out on Arthur Ashe Stadium it doesn't seem normal. It seems like I'm still living a dream. I'm so happy and proud to be there. I know how much sacrifice has gone into it and how hard I've worked. I don't ever want to lose that feeling of it being abnormal. I know how abnormal my job is. I know how surreal my life is. I know how lucky I am to be here.

The best tennis player will win Wednesday. It might be a little harder to discern the better man.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.