Freedoms, with James Blake, lose to Capitals

James Blake, making a one-night-only appearance for the Freedoms, beat Alex Kuznetsov in men's singles in World TeamTennis play at the Pavilion at Villanova.
James Blake, making a one-night-only appearance for the Freedoms, beat Alex Kuznetsov in men's singles in World TeamTennis play at the Pavilion at Villanova. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2012

In the Pavilion at Villanova University, tucked in the corner of the blue bleachers, two boys plotted what they would do after the tennis match Tuesday night.

"I'm going to meet James Blake," a 10-year-old named Gavin told one of his camp counselors. He waved a piece of white plastic carved in the shape of a racket across his face. "He's going to sign this."

An 8-year-old named Nick with a blue mohawk haircut butted in. "I'm going to tell him to sign this!" he said, slapping the right leg of his cargo shorts.

Their City of Reading Tennis counselor, Daniel Cortes, just nodded in acknowledgment. The 22-year-old's hands were full. The Reading program staff had driven 20 children about 50 miles to watch a World TeamTennis match between the Freedoms and the Sacramento Capitals.

The children had come to see Blake, who made a one-night-only appearance for the Freedoms. Blake, 32, played in the only three sets for which he was eligible: men's doubles, mixed doubles, and men's singles.

The Freedoms lost, 22-16, but Blake won two of his three sets. In men's singles, the last set of the night, Blake beat 25-year-old Alex Kuznetsov, but he struggled. At times, he looked tired against Kuznetsov, ranked No. 211 in the world.

In a news conference before the match, Blake talked like a man who knows retirement is imminent. The game isn't as easy as it used to be. He battles injuries, aches, and pains he didn't even think about when he turned pro 13 years ago.

"It's definitely getting toward the end," Blake said, "but I don't know when that end will be. It's going to be whenever my body gives out."

Blake once was seen as the future of American men's tennis, but injuries held him back. Practicing for a tournament in Rome in 2004, he slipped on the clay court and his head crashed against a net post, snapping his neck. The same year he developed shingles, which affected his hearing and vision, and temporarily paralyzed one side of his face.

Blake returned to the courts, and in 2006 peaked at No. 4 in the world. But chronic knee injuries and a bad shoulder have dogged him of late.

Now ranked No. 107, Blake is less demanding of his professional achievements now than he used to be.

"There's no reason to feel down on yourself at any point," he said. "You just enjoy it. You do the best you can. It's a very finite career. . . . When I was 21, I thought my career would never end. I thought it was going to last forever."

Still, he grew frustrated Tuesday night as he battled a less-accomplished player. During a long rally in the sixth game, only the pop of the ball bouncing off the racket, the squeak of sneakers changing direction, and grunts sneaking out of Blake's mouth could be heard. At the end of the point, Blake pushed a risky shot toward the back-left corner.

"Run it in!" he yelled at the ball.

It drifted wide. Point, Kuznetsov.

In the ninth set, Blake jumped ahead, 4-2, one point from putting the set away. But he hit one into the net and bounced another out of bounds. Finally, though, with the set on the line, Blake guided the ball into the back right corner for the win.

"Yup," he yelled, raising a fist and jogging to the Freedoms' bench.

On the second floor of the Pavilion, Gavin and Nick and the other children from the Reading program hopped down the blue bleachers and walked toward the exit. It was 9:30 p.m., and an hourlong car ride awaited. They didn't have time to wait for Blake's autograph.


Contact Tyler Jett at 215-854-4550 or tjett@philly.com.

 

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