James Blake Joins Sportimes for Rematch with Freedoms
by Christopher Gerby

72 hours after the New York Sportimes suffered a heart-wrenching loss to the Philadelphia Freedoms in a supertiebreaker, the Eastern Conference rivals would do battle again in Albany's mercifully air-conditioned SEFCU Arena. This time the home team had an ace up its sleeve: former world number four James Blake. A veteran of seven previous WTT seasons (including last year with the Freedoms), Blake was signed up on relatively short notice to make a single appearance for the Sportimes.

The 33-year-old American has struggled to stay in the Top 100 of the ATP rankings in recent years. He remains a fan favorite, however, and he got a hero's welcome here. After the usual in-house announcer handled all of the other pre-match introductions, Blake's intro was performed by a special guest: longtime New York State Lottery hostess Yolanda Vega. (Trust me, she's a New York television institution. Hearing her intone "I'm Yolanda Vega" is the equivalent of Michael Buffer doing his "ready to rumble" shtick.) After Vega rattled off a lengthy list of Blake's accomplishments, he set out to back up the fanfare on the court.

First set: men's doubles -- Blake/Witten vs. Groth/Kerr

James Blake may be a short-term fill-in for the Sportimes, but his sheer energy appeared to give the team an immediate lift. After opening the match with a solid service hold, Blake set about attempting to break the vaunted, record-holding serve of Philadelphia's Samuel Groth. On the points where his partner Jesse Witten handled the return, Blake could be seen leaning forward in the service box, looking rather like a hungry panther ready to strike. Blake closed nicely on an athletic volley to give the Sportimes a 15-40 edge against a seemingly rattled Groth, who promptly coughed up a double fault. Early advantage to New York, 2-0.

The next four games went with serve fairly routinely, leaving the Sportimes with a 4-2 lead and a chance to serve out an impressive opening set. Witten got to triple set point with a massive ace. Groth responded with a winning backhand return, staving off elimination for the time being. New York would convert the second set point, however, as Blake knifed away a backhand volley to clinch a tidy 5-2 win.


The customary "interview" in which a little kid takes the court to ask one of the players a few questions after the opening set commenced, with James Blake on the hot seat. Asked what advice he would give youngsters just starting out in tennis, Blake replied, "The most important thing is to just have fun." Having smiled throughout the doubles set (even after unwisely letting one Groth return fall in for a winner), the evening's marquee attraction practiced what he preached.

Second set: women's singles -- Anna-Lena Groenefeld vs. Victoria Duval

Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Victoria Duval played a very curious set of singles last Friday evening: Groenefeld blasting her way to a 4-1 lead, only to crumble under a torrent of unforced errors and lose 5-4. Monday night's rematch started in a similar fashion, with the powerful German imposing her will on the American teen. Groenefeld dropped just four points in the first three games combined. After lacing a cross-court forehand winner to secure the double break for 3-0, Groenefeld raised a very positive looking clenched first.

And yet, in what has become a recurring theme this season, Groenefeld's victory carriage swiftly reverted to pumpkin form. Groenefeld served two wild double faults and -- due more to an apparent lapse of concentration than any fireworks from Duval -- saw her lead dwindle to 3-2. Perhaps it's with good reason that Groenefeld now sticks to doubles in her WTA Tour career.

Rather than let history repeat itself for too long, Groenefeld righted the ship. Controlling rallies with her hefty forehand, Anna-Lena held at 15 and sprinted to a 15-40 lead on Duval's serve. The first set point was squandered when a Groenefeld backhand just missed the sideline. No such problem on set point number two: Groenefeld spanked a vicious forehand cross-court for a clean winner. There was a finality to Anna-Lena's fist pump this time as she banked New York's second 5-2 win.


Third set: men's singles -- James Blake vs. Jordan Kerr...?

The James Blake show resumed in set three, as one enterprising member of the crowd clambered around the stands selling "J-Block" t-shirts (in honor of Blake's notoriously noisy fan club) for 10 bucks a pop. And what better way to amp up the excitement than by having Blake square off against fellow 33-year-old Jordan Kerr? Wait, what? Doubles specialist Jordan Kerr? The same Jordan Kerr who hasn't even held an ATP Tour singles ranking since 2003? What's going on here?

The method to Freedoms coach Josh Cohen's madness quickly became apparent. He simply wanted to give Kerr (who's steadier returning serve than teammate Samuel Groth) a crack at breaking Blake's serve in the opening game. Alas, Blake held at 15 and the charade came to an end, as Groth jogged in as a substitute.

Third set: men's singles -- James Blake vs. Samuel Groth

When Blake stretched to execute a slick backhand winner en route to a 0-40 lead in Game 2, it appeared he was ready to take on any opponent Philadelphia had to throw at him. Rocket serving Groth battled back, however, saving four break points in a row. After getting a cheesy, only-in-WTT ace (the ball hopping off the net cord and falling in), Groth let out an inappropriately boisterous "YES!" The affable Aussie then spent the entire period between games apologizing -- sheepishly raising his racquet twice and pleading, "I'm sorry, James!"

The set went with serve to 2-all, at which point it was Groth's turn to put Blake in a tricky 0-40 hole. "Big Game James" saved three break points, but the crucial game point eluded him. As Blake steered a forehand wide, Groth pumped his fist and bellowed, "COME ON!" There would be no apology for that outburst: Groth was fired up and riding a wave of momentum. He held for a 4-2 lead (getting some more fortuitous help from the net cord) and played a picture perfect return game to break Blake at love. Following his partner Jordan Kerr's cameo, Groth won 5 of 6 games to secure a 5-2 upset.


After the match, I asked Blake about the strategic tactic Philadelphia had employed to open the men's singles set. "They said Samuel had been struggling on returns lately, so they wanted Jordan to take a shot at breaking me," Blake replied. "It looked like the way Sam was playing, he could have been in the whole time." Of course, things might have gone differently had the ball not skipped off the tape in Groth's favor on a few key points. "Twice he got let cords on 3-all points. It happens. That's Team Tennis and that's tennis in general. Anything can happen. I'd say he came up big, but those are a little bit of luck. Next time it'll go my way."

Fourth set: mixed doubles -- Peschke/Blake vs. Huber/Groth

After splitting two previous sets, James Blake and Samuel Groth returned to the court for the rubber match, each now assisted by a Grand Slam winning mixed doubles partner. Everyone was playing at a high level and they produced some spectacular points: none more spectacular than a running, lunging, around-the-post forehand winner by Groth that had Liezel Huber jumping for joy. Blake, meanwhile, was springing around like an antsy teenager, popping up from an ambitious I-formation crouch every time Kveta Peschke served to Huber (even second serves).

In all, eight consecutive games of mixed doubles went with serve, marred only by some iffy officiating, with each team looking askance at a roughly equal array of questionable calls. At 4-all, the quite entertaining set wound its away to a tiebreak...

  • SG serving: Groth gets matters underway with an unreturnable serve -- 1-0 FREEDOMS
  • SG: Another good first serve sets up a winning Huber volley -- 2-0 FREEDOMS
  • JB: Strong serve by Blake opens up the court for a routine Peschke volley -- 2-1 FREEDOMS
  • JB: Blake overwhelms Huber with a service winner -- 2-2
  • LH: Peschke pokes a forehand volley down the middle for a clutch mini-break -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • LH: Ugly double fault into the net by Huber hands New York a set point chance -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • KP: Groth's aggressive backhand return lands wide to end it -- 5-2 SPORTIMES


    Fifth set: women's doubles -- Groenefeld/Peschke vs. Duval/Huber

    The women's doubles duo that won 6 of 7 games on Friday night to dramatically force a supertiebreaker was back on court against the same opponents they'd largely dominated in that encounter. And when Kveta Peschke drilled a volley at Liezel Huber's feet to break Victoria Duval's serve and give the Sportimes a 3-1 lead, the vultures were well and truly circling. Emerging as the star of the set, Peschke put away three winning volleys in Game 5, helping Anna-Lena Groenefeld hold for 4-1. The assembled media gathered around the entrance to the court, ready to dot the i's and cross the t's on the Freedoms' obituary.

    Not. So. Fast. Say what you will about Liezel Huber (and her peeved opponents have said plenty over the years), but give her this: she is a woman of boundless enthusiasm and an unquenchable desire to win. Even trailing by 7 games in the overall score, the plucky veteran was still shuffling around the court like Curly from "The Three Stooges" and spurring on her young partner. When Game 6 went to game point (i.e. match point for New York/break point for Philly), it was Huber who punched home a winning volley to keep the match alive.

    Groenefeld's attempt to serve it out at 4-2 was in trouble even before the umpire jumped in with a fault call. ("You wait until now to make the first overrule?" an incredulous James Blake chirped from the Sportimes' bench.) Groenefeld missed the second serve, too, fell behind 15-40, and buried a swinging volley in the net to drop the game. Remember that 4-1 lead? Now we were back on serve at 4-3.

    Many spectators had opted to beat the traffic after Blake's duties were done in set 4. Still more filed out midway through this final set. Those who remained had to hold their collective breath as Game 8 went to deuce -- another match point/break point situation. All four players got involved in the enusing rally, but fittingly it was Miss Feast or Famine herself who decided it: Groenefeld found the net with a poor forehand volley. Duval and Huber remained behind in the overall tally, mind you, but they were still alive. Could they extend the match by winning the fifth set tiebreak?

  • ALG serving: Good serve by Groenefeld sets up an easy Peschke smash -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • ALG: Huber drills a forehand right at Peschke, who responds with a spry reflex volley winner -- 2-0 SPORTIMES
  • LH: Peschke guides a return down the line for a clean winner -- 3-0 SPORTIMES
  • LH: Groenefeld abuses Huber's serve, leaving Peschke an easy put-away to earn a fistful of match points -- 4-0 SPORTIMES
  • KP: Untimely double fault (into the net) for Peschke -- 4-1 SPORTIMES
  • KP: Practically crowding the net, Groenefeld butchers a volley -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • VD: Huber directs a smash at the feet of Groenefeld, who can't dig it back -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • VD: Long rally ends on Huber's reflex volley winner; sixth match point saved, with one more to come -- 4-4
  • VD: Nice volley by Groenefeld; Duval makes a desperate stab at it, but comes up short -- 5-4 SPORTIMES


    Just as a spirited Groenefeld/Peschke comeback had ultimately come up short on Friday, Duval and Huber made it exciting in a losing effort on Monday night. Watching those six match points go by the boards gave James Blake a sense of World TeamTennis deja vu. "Coming down to the end there, that tiebreaker, I thought we were in a pretty comfortable position up 4-love, then back to 4-all. It's always tricky. I don't think any of these matches I've ever played in have been easy."

    Fortunately for the Sportimes, they'd built a big lead early in the evening, setting the tone when Blake and Witten managed to break Samuel Groth's mighty serve right off the bat in men's doubles. When I asked Blake about that turning point, he responded, "His serve is so big, it's tough to get any kind of looks on it. We just did our best to make some returns that game. Once we got up on that one, it definitely gave us a little boost, to know that we could break him. We knew that was gonna be the toughest task all day."

    While he may not have engaged in the playful antics and verbal jousting that marked Andy Roddick's appearance in the Sportimes' home opener, Blake had given the fans their money's worth with the flair in his game, spring in his step, and smile on his face. The informal, raucous WTT atmosphere suits him just fine. "It's a lot of fun, with the crowd getting into it, you've got a lot of kids here, music going -- I enjoy this a lot," says Blake. "I wish the (ATP) Tour was a little more like it where they invited the crowd to be a part of it a little more."