|Tuesday, March 5
Updated: March 6, 6:53 PM ET
Blake, Roddick are hits in climb up ATP charts
By Greg Garber
James Blake played his college tennis at Harvard University, but back on Feb. 24 he found himself trying not to think too much.
"You try not to let it sink in," Blake said recently from his hotel room in San Jose, Calif. "We had both come a long way. At that time he was a whole lot better, but now we're closer. The fact that we played a good match bodes well for American tennis. We're both learning and pushing each other.
"Well, I don't know if I'm pushing him, really. But he's doing so well it encourages the rest of us young Americans that it's possible. It helps us want to get there."
Roddick, 19, defeated Blake, 22, in a rousing three-set match that had people talking optimistically about the future of American men's tennis. It was only the third All-American final in more than five years that didn't include Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi. With the recently married, 30-something Sampras and Agassi approaching the end of stellar careers (they have combined for 20 Grand Slam singles titles), the next generation is beginning to assert itself.
Although Roddick and Blake met again in the San Jose quarterfinals, with Roddick prevailing in straight sets, it was worth noting that three Americans -– Roddick, Agassi and 24-year-old Jan-Michael Gambill -– all reached the semifinals of the tournament eventually won by No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who himself turned 21 the day of the Memphis final.
Taylor Dent, 20, Mardy Fish, 20, and Robby Ginepri, 19, all have made early-season impressions as well. A year ago, ESPN.com profiled the rise of these young Americans, and in the intervening 12 months their strides have been impressive. Roddick is on the cusp of the ATP entry system's top 10, Blake cracked the top 50 earlier this week for the first time, and Dent, Fish, Ginepri and 23-year-old Alex Kim all have raised their rankings dramatically. Ginepri, who attended his high school prom last spring, has shaved more than 1,000 spots off his ranking and is now a credible No. 148.
Roddick's dramatic rise has overshadowed Blake's gradual evolution.
"I didn't make one huge leap like Andy," Blake said. "He burst on scene and exploded right away. For me, it took time to figure out my game. My talent alone wasn't enough for me to be successful. A couple of years ago, I was hoping to be a good college player.
"First of all, I was humbled. I'd done so well in college (in 1998 and 1999) and then coming out here and losing so much. You learn from each loss. The first thing I needed to do was improve my backhand. In college, weakness can be covered up. Here, guys will pick up on it and attack it so easily."
So, he worked on his backhand, then worked on it some more. And then some more. Blake fancied himself a hard worker in college, but he was surprised how much more work playing for a paycheck required. Gradually, his results improved.
You could see it happening last fall, when Blake won two of the first three sets in a second-round U.S. Open match against Hewitt, the eventual champion. Blake cramped badly but acquitted himself well in a five-set loss.
"I had my chances to win that match, but my body kind of gave out," Blake recalled. "But that match gave me some confidence. I knew there was no reason I couldn't play with those guys. It was just a matter of consistency."
Since the Open, Blake has worked toward maintaining that high level of play. He reached the semifinals at Tokyo, the second of his career after Newport earlier in the year, but lost there to Hewitt. After several months of working on his conditioning, Blake surprised two-time French Open finalist Alex Corretja in the first round of the Australian Open in January.
It's likely that Blake will be part of Patrick McEnroe's Davis Cup team that will host Spain in the April quarterfinals at Houston's Westside Tennis Club. Blake, for the record, is a perfect 4-0 in Davis Cup matches, although two of those wins came after the match result had been decided.
"Every chance I get, I want to be a part of that team," Blake said. "It's not something I ever expect or that I deserve it, but I feel like if I get the call it's my duty. I hope I'm the one who gets that opportunity."
While this group of young Americans may not record the dazzling accomplishments of the new Brat Pack of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang that emerged in the late 1980s, there already is a camaraderie developing. There had better be; these young Americans keep bumping into each other in the draws of these tournaments. Every week, it seems, there is at least one All-American match.
"I didn't talk to the older guys about growing up," Blake said. "But we all get along. Mardy Fish is probably my best friend on the Tour. Ginepri is a buddy, and Dent is a friend. I'm genuinely happy for them when they do well. When I played well against (Patrick) Rafter last year in Cincinnati, Mardy and his coach were in the stands; they were pretty excited.
"Tennis is such an individual sport, so it seems like when you win, you win for yourself. It's good to have other guys to support you."
Said Roddick: "I think we're coming into our own. It's nice for me to see three guys on the Davis Cup team under 22, and they are winning matches. I think that's a very positive sign and I think we're all improving at a pretty decent pace, so who knows what the future holds?
"I don't think we've had a group of prospects with this much promise for quite awhile."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com