Thursday, March 12, 2015

James Blake Talks About US Tennis

by Savannah

Long time readers know I'm not a big fan of James Blake. I always felt he was more interested in being liked than in going out and beating people.

 photo 0f2d86c0-abbb-47f4-97da-803d51fa29f0_zps54a2iomr.jpg
via ATP Tennis

Be that as it may he's being mentioned as the possible head of USTA Player Development, the man who would determine how up and coming US talent, male and female, will be trained to play on the world's stage. He's been off the tour for a year and a half and if he does get the Player Development job what he thinks about the state of US tennis is important.

Tennis Now got a chance to talk with Blake and got some interesting answers from him regarding how he sees US tennis going forward. I'm excerpting the part of the interview that focuses on that. The full interview is at the link.

TN: The State of American men’s tennis is a concern for everybody in the states right now, especially given what happened over the weekend in Glasgow. It’s never a good thing to lose in Davis Cup, but maybe relegation would be a good thing that would cause the leadership to tear things down and give them a shot to play some of our younger talent.

I think I agree more with your first statement. It’s never a good thing to lose. I think you want to win, you want to put U.S. tennis on the map and give us a chance because I think the situation as it is right now… a guy like John Isner he could go out and beat anyone in the world on any given day, so I would never want to take him off the team. I wouldn’t want to take him out of the World Group, because you put him in the World Group, along with the Bryans, who are favored against any other doubles team on the planet, and you have a chance to beat any team.

I’m looking forward to that draw ceremony to see who we play in September, and hopefully we’ll get back and stay in the World Group.

TN: Kids like Jared Donaldson, Noah Rubin, Michael Mhoh, Francis Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov have American fans excited about the future. What is your take on this younger crop of kids and what do you think they need to do to in order to get to elite status?

It’s going to be a little while before we talk about elite status with them but I think it’s the best situation possible when you have, as you mentioned when you reeled off four or five names, high-quality players hopefully able to push each other. Because then you don’t have one superstar that you are hanging all the hopes of American tennis on. I think it’s a really good scenario, and I think if these guys go out and push each other—I’m not going to be the one to go out on a limb and say this one or that one is the next superstar—hopefully in the next few years it will start to flesh itself out, and we’ll see who’s got the mental capacity, who’s physically able to handle the rigors of the tour, and who is going to be pushing themselves to the top of the game.

I hope that a few of these guys, not just one of them, emerge as top-caliber pros and make all these questions of what’s wrong with American tennis go away.

TN: I’ve heard you say that American tennis should not focus its energies on creating a new crop of clay-courters just because European players who’ve been trained on clay are having success on the tour now. You’ve said—and correct me if I’m wrong—that US tennis should stick with what works and embrace the faster surfaces. If more training on clay is not a solution, do you have any ideas of how to bring it forward?

If they feel like they are clay-court players I think we should give them the opportunity to develop on clay and have those resources available, but I don’t think it’s something that we should be actively pushing because history proves that we’re better on faster surfaces. We’ve had a lot more U.S. Open champions than French Open champions. We’ve got three of the four Slams on those surfaces. I think we stick with what works best for us, and that’s generally been our skillset, because we’ve been training that way from very young.

I think if we start forcing what’s not natural on them, it’s not necessarily going to make them the best clay-courters in the world. If you know you’re a great clay-courter—guys like Jim Courier, Michael Chang—they had that ability from early on, they could see that. If players want to practice more on clay and want to compete with all the Spaniards, the Argentinians and all the guys that have been playing on clay their whole lives, then we just need to have the resources to do that. But I don’t think we should push it on the guys that want to play like Pete Sampras or Roger Federer.

TN: Your name has been thrown out there as a possible head of player development with the USTA. Is there something intriguing about your name and the words player development in the same sentence to you?

Yes, it’s very intriguing, because for me it’s one job that would get me excited to get out of bed every morning, something where I hopefully can make a difference and make a positive change in what’s been going on with the USTA and Player Development. Honestly I think they’re already on the right track. I’d be trying to help and push that forward and make a lot of things go the right way and then let the players do the rest of the work. Let the players do the real hard work and just give them the opportunities.

I think that’s the biggest thing Player Development can do. Open up doors, give them the opportunity and find out what they can do with those opportunities.


TN: On the Tennis Podcast you picked Grigor Dimitrov to be next maiden Slam winner, and you said it can be this year. What makes you believe in Grigor as that type of a talent and do you still see him breaking through despite his early season struggles?

I just see his talent. He has such an amazing wealth of ability. He doesn’t just have one thing that makes him good and I think that’s also part of the reason why he’s had some struggles at times because he doesn’t always know the best way to be effective. He has so much ability he doesn’t just fit one gameplan. If you’re a player like Milos Raonic you have a pretty straightforward gameplan, and Grigor with so many different weapons sometimes he can confuse himself. Even a guy like Roger, early on in his career had so many ways to win it took him a little while to really have his “A” game and know what made a difference and made him the best player in the world.

With Grigor I think he still has that opportunity, so I still think he is the one young guy who has the best chance to break through and win a Slam.

TN: Is some of this caused by what you saw him do at Wimbledon last year? He can be a really great big-match player.

Yes, he can be. He can beat anyone in the world. It’s just a matter of him putting it together and figuring out what works best for him on a day-to-day basis. Not just that one time in a big match, he needs to be doing it every single practice so it becomes second nature.

TN: Where do you see Jack Sock fitting in with this group. He’s got some tremendous talent. Are you still in touch with him and what are your thoughts on his future?

Yes, he’s playing Indian Wells. I’ve been in touch with him, he feels stronger than ever, which is a good thing. Hopefully he can turn a negative into a positive, hopefully being bitten by the injury bug made him realize how important staying healthy is and he will sort of rededicate himself to being in the best shape he can be in.

He does have a lot of weapons, he just has to figure out how to harness them at the right times. He has unbelievable hands at the net, he moves a lot better than people give him credit for, I think he just has to find ways to put it together, and I think consistency is a big thing. Just being able to do it every day in practice, so that when you go out there you know even if you’re not at your best that day, your level is still high enough to win matches. That’s the thing that a lot of young guys don’t have.

Three statements Blake makes jump out at me. The first is about John Isner, Bob and Mike Bryan, and Davis Cup.

Isner can beat anybody? Since when? His movement is suspect, his on court thinking and shot construction can charitably be called mediocre, and who has he beaten lately? His Davis Cup performance was shocking because Ward dismantled him with relative ease. By the end of the match Isner was thinking like a junior playing his first main tour match.

Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan are 36 years old. How much longer will they be able to play top level tennis? In his comments Blake indicates that it's written in stone that those three, Isner and the Bryans, have to be on the team. So who will be the fourth man? Will one of the new jacks get a chance to be exposed to the mad house that is Davis Cup or will one of the current crop - Harrison, Young or Sock be rotated in? It's interesting that no mention was made of who will be Davis Cup captain after all the speculation about Courier being forced out.

The comments about Grigor Dimitrov seem to be taken right out of a PR statement. The reason Dimitrov gets confused on court is because he's got so many options it's hard for him to choose just one per Blake. Doesn't that get back to point construction and the ability to think, react and improvise on court? If he's to win a Slam the way so many is the States think he's about ready to do doesn't he have to put all of this together? If you saw him play in Acapulco where he was defending champion you saw him in the same mental place as Isner at the end of the match. He had run out of ideas and had no concept of how to change the momentum of the match. And this was on a hard court. You can have all the talent in the world but if you don't know how to channel and use it it's useless.

The third statement that caused me to raise an eyebrow was about Jack Sock. Sock has been injured a lot and hasn't been able to gain traction on the tour. What does Blake say about him? He's got lots of weapons and just has to learn to use them at the right time. Sound familiar? The thing a lot of young guys don't have is the ability to find a way to win when you're not playing your best Blake says.

And that leads me to the topic that led into this discussion: bringing up young US players on clay and then switching to hard court.

The reporter asked the question that needed to be asked and Blake, disingenuously answered another question, one that wasn't asked. No one is saying that the USTA needs to focus on making the next generation clay court players. What is being said is that learning to play on clay, learning how to construct a point, learning how to prepare physically and mentally for tough matches would give young US players the things they lack: the ability to construct points, to think on court, to anticipate, to ask questions of their opponents and demand an answer. In his comments about Sock isn't he admitting that the young man can't do what the top guys do? He may be delusional about Isner but the things he says about Sock, and Dimitrov, show that he, and maybe those in charge of developing players here in the States, are being short sighted to say the least.

Think about it. Would Pete Sampras be considered anything but a servebot today? Milos Raonic is the closest to Sampras style and he tends to lose his way and be out manuevered in matches. You can say what you want about Roger Federer but he is an all surface player, able to adapt his game to any surface. You can want to play like Sampras all you want but the majors, the Slams and Master's 1000's will elude you. As long as training on clay is seen as "forcing what's not natural on them" in the eyes of the USTA we're not going to have winners of major tournaments.

I like to go to at least one day of US Open Qualies because you get to see the players the USTA is pushing as the next big thing. For the last few years I've seen young players with all the shots but with no court sense. The only way US tennis will be on top again is when the current top players throw in the towel. The level of tennis, from what I see with a few exceptions, will drop precipitously and mediocre will become great. That's harsh but it's what I see. If I'm proven wrong so be it. I'm a tennis fan and I'd love to see my prediction be wrong.

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Professor Livermon's Blog said...

Hi Savannah,

Thanks for this write-up. There is a lot in this interview that should give any fan of US Tennis (at least on the men's side) pause. But I think that your first statement is the most telling. As a player, Blake was focused on being liked, the non-threatening friendly black guy who didn't rock the boat and often played with a "I'm just happy to be here" mentality. I imagine that mentality carries over into his thoughts on US Davis Cup, Sock, Dimitrov, and player development. What I mean by that is Blake is going to tow the line and not rock the boat because at heart he wants to be liked and accepted. Hence his answers a la Dimitrov tow the PR line, his response a la Sock (who is a product of USTA development if ever there was one) and player development does not upset the USTA brass, and his discussion of Davis Cup does not ruffle any feathers. In my opinion, if he were to get this job it would not be auspicous for US player development, which needs to be shaken up, and needs someone willing to challenge the status quo and rethink ostensible truisms. That person is unlikely to be Blake.

Savannah said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. For all his faults PMac was trying to get US kids to begin training on real red clay to develop the skills our players sorely lack now. Blake's would be approach will ensure that our players will continue to be cannon fodder in draws for major tournaments.

It's a very troubling message for US tennis.