Latest win moves Blake up in ATP race

You'd expect James Blake to be soaring hours after his 6-3, 6-1, 58-minute demolition of top-seeded Ivan Ljubicic in the final of the Thailand Open. The win marked Blake's career-best fourth tournament win of the season in his year of breakthroughs. He has more titles in 2006 than any ATP player except Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and has put himself in an excellent position to make the season-ending championships in Shanghai.

But this is a guy who has seen his tennis fortunes shift suddenly a couple of times, making him inclined to stay grounded while savoring the victory.

"We're in a pretty heated race" to qualify for Shanghai, Blake, who is sixth in the eight-man ATP Race to the Tennis Masters Cup, said Sunday from a tournament car on his way to the airport in Bangkok. "I'm so much closer now than I was last year, but I don't worry about it too much.

"I'm already proud of what's happened this year. Hopefully, I can go into the last two Masters Series tournaments and do some damage, but I can't control it if a couple guys play well and get hot."

Blake was the hot one last week despite the fact his participation was in doubt until the last minute. The recent bloodless military coup in Thailand gave Blake and his coach Brian Barker some second thoughts about making the long trip, but they were assured they would be safe.

He buzzed by two lower-ranked players before tackling No. 17 Jarkko Nieminen of Finland in the quarters. In the semis, Blake got the best of Marat Safin for the second time in a week, the first being the so-called dead rubber in the Davis Cup semifinals in Moscow after Russia had already clinched. A win is a win, though, and that one came on clay, Blake's least productive surface.

Blake had lost to Ljubicic all four times they'd played before Sunday, but the final was never in doubt. He bolted out to a 5-0 lead in the first set and won the last four games of the second as Ljubicic double-faulted on match point.

"He was having trouble with his first serve, and I was taking chances on his second," Blake said. "I kept him off-balance."

It wasn't the first losing streak Blake ended this season. He finally vanquished Lleyton Hewitt for the first time in seven tries in March to win the final in Las Vegas (although Hewitt struck back in the London/Queens Club final) and twice knocked off his buddy Andy Roddick after six straight defeats, winning the semi in London and the final in Indianapolis. Blake's other title came early in the year in Sydney.

Blake will take a few days off before heading to Stockholm, a tournament where he is the defending champion. "I haven't had that experience too much," he said. "I'll be doing it more next year."

In the trenches
For every player at or near the top of their game like Blake, there are three or four others toiling in the great gray middle of the top 100.

Laura Granville is one of them. This summer marked the five-year anniversary of her decision to leave Stanford after her sophomore year and turn pro. She won two U.S. junior titles and two NCAA singles championships -- the second driving Stanford's 30-0 season in 2001. She put together a 58-match winning streak from 2000 to 2001.

"With pro tennis, at times you don't do very well for a matter of weeks or even months," she told me in an interview for a Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine piece that ran that July. "Being able to bounce back from that is something I definitely have to learn to deal with. I think that I'm mentally tough enough, but it's something new.

"I've always kind of wanted to play at a level where I wasn't winning all the time. I think that's going to be good for me."

When Granville and I talked that spring in the courtyard of her sorority house, I was a Stanford student enjoying the final weeks of a mid-career journalism fellowship.

My own experience made Granville's decision to turn pro seem more poignant and difficult to me, although I understood there was nothing left for her to accomplish at that level. She was too competitive to stay put.

Granville, now 25, got her wish for a more obstacle-strewn path, in spades. She has made almost $1 million and won six lower-level professional tournaments. She reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in her first full season as a pro and hit a career-high No. 28 in June 2003. She made her first WTA tournament final the next year. In 2005, then-Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King selected her for the team, although Granville did not play.

This week Granville is ranked No. 72 after spending most of the season in or flirting with the top 50. She has gone unmentioned in the "next U.S. generation of women" stories that focused on Jamea Jackson, Vania King and Shenay Perry -- players who at various points this season were below or not that far removed from her in the rankings.

"I can't believe it's been five years," Granville said. "I think it hasn't been the easiest thing for me. It's been tough adjusting to all the travel.

"I definitely feel it hasn't gone quite as well as I'd hoped. I would have hoped to be consistently ranked higher. If I can't be consistently ranked in the 30s or 40s, I don't know how much longer I would want to play. I'm not going to play another five or six years if this is the best I can do.

"I'd like to share a coach with another girl, and I'm still struggling with where to train. There are a lot of questions, and I'm pretty up in the air. I'm not in a great place right now."

"If I can't be consistently ranked in the 30s or 40s, I don't know how much longer I would want to play. I'm not going to play another five or six years if this is the best I can do."
-- Laura Granville (currently ranked No. 72)

Granville is based in Miami these days, although she still works with her longtime coach John Trump in suburban Chicago when she's back home. She has played a mix of WTA and lower-level tournaments this season, trying to stay match-fit despite her struggles in tour events.

She spent most of the past four years working with U.S. Tennis Association coach Ola Malmqvist as part of a traveling group of American players. Granville is friendly with Jackson and Perry and said she isn't jealous of the attention they've gotten this season.

"In some ways, it's less pressure that people aren't thinking about me," she said.

Granville said she has no regrets about taking her cuts. When I asked whether she had a five-year plan written down somewhere, she said she didn't. "I just wanted to see how I could do and hope for the best," she said. "And if I do decide to stop playing, I will definitely go back and get my degree. [Fellow Stanford player turned pro] Marissa Irvin's there now, and Lilia Osterloh has said she'd go back at some point, too."

Back in 2003, Granville told South Florida Sun-Sentinel writer Charlie Bricker she still felt wistful about leaving college life behind, but that has passed with the intervening years. "It was hard when my peers were still in school, but my class graduated three years ago," Granville said. "I don't really think about it anymore."

Granville plans to spend the rest of the season playing U.S. Pro Circuit events, starting with a $50,000 event in San Francisco next week, and will pair with Carly Gullickson in doubles. She's looking forward to this winter, when her younger sister Lily will take a semester off from Northwestern to travel with her to a few exotic WTA destinations she hasn't seen yet.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.