Even at his best, Blake's chances against Federer slim

Updated: January 22, 2008

Blake's Growth

James Blake has never reached a Grand Slam semifinal. He's also a woeful 0-7 lifetime versus Roger Federer. And while Blake is far from a one-tick pony, his game is predicated on a penetrating serve and heavy forehand. Federer is well aware Blake won't deviate far from that strategy.

But make no mistake, Blake has no plans of conceding his upcoming clash with the world's No. 1 player when they meet at the Australian Open quarterfinals (Wednesday, 3:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2).

While in the unenviable position of facing an opponent who has awarded the American one paltry career set, Blake's drive and confidence have noticeably manifested itself. This was amplified during the third round versus a savvy veteran, Sebastien Grosjean, where Blake delivered his first career comeback from two sets down. His arduous rally included erasing two breaks of serve in the fourth set as well.

Blake's newfound mental toughness, in part, can be attributed to the U.S. Davis Cup team's title following a 12-year drought. Blake, who plays No. 2 singles behind Andy Roddick, has struggled in the team competition, going just 3-6 in live-rubber competition since 2003. But in the championship tie versus Russia, Blake pulled out an emotional four-set win (a match that included three tiebreakers) versus Mikhail Youzhny, which for all intent and purposes clinched the title.


"I feel like I've always continued getting better mentally," Blake told reporters following his heroics against Grosjean. "I think it's fine if people want to call that Davis Cup match the benchmark or the hump or getting over whatever. But I feel like I just continued to make progress, and had always been doing well, going at kind of my own rate. I feel great about the way I had been doing, and I feel even better about the way I am now competing mentally, not getting down on myself as much, not worrying about pressure."

Blake's assignment now is to prove he can parlay momentum and confidence into meaningful wins. Federer, accolades aside, is one of the most astute players in the game and is well aware of his upcoming foe's development.

"He's improved a lot the last couple years," Federer said in his press conference after a routine three-set win over Tomas Berdych. "He plays incredibly aggressive tennis. Improved his serve a lot, his backhand. So I have to be careful."

With Federer the most egregious obstacle standing in his way, Blake is not about to rest in his laurels. He's never journeyed past a Grand Slam quarterfinal -- one of only three men in the top 12 not to have advanced to the final four of a major.

And if the American plans on a personal-best tournament, a quick start is paramount. Federer -- one of the great frontrunners who has ever played -- has dropped just four matches in 35 career Grand Slam events after winning the opening set.

The perils of falling behind early will likely be insurmountable for Blake. He is keenly aware opportunity knocks only once in a while, and when it does, he has to take control. And as Blake learned previously, even at his best, it's often not enough.

The 2006 Masters Cup was Blake's most prestigious final to date. That match -- versus Federer -- turned into a 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 drubbing by the Swiss, who won the year-end event for the third time in four years.

"I thought I played pretty well in the finals of the Masters Cup," said Blake. "Was just kind of blown away by how well he played that day. If that's the case again, you know, it hurts, it's disappointing at the time, but by the time I got on the plane or got off the plane I just said, 'you know, what could I have done?'

"He played too well. I can't beat myself up about it. I can go out and practice and see if I can get better, see if there's any way to defend what he was doing that day. But try to learn something from all of them. So far I've learned he's pretty good."

More disconcerting is what Federer is capable of even when his game is not spot on. The venerable Swiss's marathon match in the third round at the Australian Open against Janko Tipsarevic was illuminating for Blake.

"It just shows that there are enough guys out here that can play on their best day and give him trouble," Blake maintained. It hopefully can raise my spirits to know that I can do the same. I've always felt that. Every time I've stepped out on the court with him, I've felt if I play my best, I give myself a shot with anyone in the world. He's the best in the world, obviously, so I give myself a shot against him. Every time he stepped up and played better."

The comfort and maturation from Blake during this tournament has been glaring. The gumption and effort he put forth after falling behind Grosjean was compelling, but it was the subsequent ease in which he rebounded and handled 19-year old prodigy Marin Cilic in the next round that was a testament to his evolution.

In the end, it's likely going to take an off day from Federer, coupled by a monumental performance by Blake to get him through to the semifinals.

And perhaps a fortuitous bounce or two.

Matt Wilansky is the tennis editor for ESPN.com



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The Body


The normally reserved Rafael Nadal had his audience chuckling when describing his physique at the Australian Open.

When asked to compare the state of his body in Melbourne compared with last year's U.S. Open, No. 2 Nadal gave an answer many of his female fans would probably agree with.

"My body is perfect, no?" No. 2 Nadal joked before clarifying. "Physically speaking. Nothing perfect."

Nadal looked in great shape as he downed No. 24 Jarkko Nieminen of Finland 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 and reach his first semifinals in four trips to the Australian Open.

"This year I started very well. I don't have any problems at the U.S. Open and I'm in the semifinals without losing a set," he said. "Physically I'm very happy. I don't have any problem."

Nadal next faces Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, who beat Mikhail Youzhny of Russia 7-5, 6-0, 7-6 (6).


Finnish Army Life


Jarkko Nieminen thinks a taste of Finnish army life has been a big factor in his best start to an ATP season.

Nieminen, who is on leave from his part-time national service in Finland, was runner up at Adelaide this month before making his first Australian Open quarterfinals, where he lost 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 to No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Tuesday.

"I feel I'm playing great," said Nieminen, ranked 24th. "I'm physically in better shape than ever, and to start a year like this, finals in Adelaide and then quarterfinals here, it's promising good for this year."

He said the basic training during the offseason helped improve his mental edge, rather than his fitness.

"I've always been in good shape, but I think maybe I'm mentally in better shape now because of that," said Nieminen, who must complete his army service on his return from the Open.

After losing the Adelaide final to Frenchman Michael Llodra, Nieminen beat Canadian Frank Dancevic, Americans Mardy Fish and Jesse Levine, and 29th-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber on his way to the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Nieminen reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2006, propelling him to a highest ever ranking of No. 13.



Bonnie D. Ford is on the grounds at the Australian Open for the two-week event. She'll have firsthand knowledge of everything that's transpiring Down Under. Send your questions to Bonnie here.