Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blake Has the Shots, Including Some for the Camera

Published: August 29, 2007

James Blake wore a shirt the same color of blue as a pilot light, creating the feel that he was flickering as he darted from net to baseline in an illumination of his speed.

He chased down every angle in Queens — including a camera angle — when he raced to a lob by Michael Russell and, with his back to the net, whipped the racket between his ankles for a shot that rousted the United States Open crowd in the first set.

Blake pursued every shot — including a camera shot — when he sprinted for a corner lob in the second set of his victory yesterday and, with his unshaven face to the wall, swiped yet another get between his legs.

Which landed out? Which went in? It’s all good in a highlight-reel culture where the acrobatic scissor shot in tennis has become the new dunk.

“It’s a little like an ESPN thing,” said Brad Gilbert, the former coach to the stars, from Andre Agassi to Andy Roddick, and who is currently guiding Andy Murray.

“You hit one, you make one. And then all of the sudden you get on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”

The quickest route to frame-by-frame fame for American athletes is through the self-indulgent creation of a wow factor. It’s about rim-rattling jams from the free-throw line and daring shots between the inseams of a player’s shorts.

“I think everybody can hit them,” said Russell, who, at 5 feet 8 inches (on a street curb) doesn’t attempt many. “It’s so low percentage. For every one you make, there’s like 20 that you miss. The fact that you make that one, and the crowd goes crazy, kind of justifies” the misses.

The tricks are for the adoration of the crowd and for the love of the lens. And there is nothing wrong with selective showmanship. Roger Federer pulls rabbits from his racket strings at times, too, with nifty wrist work. And Rafael Nadal seems to escape from a padlocked trunk every time he tracks down an opponent’s sure winner.

But in the same way the dunk has come to symbolize the decline of American fundamentals in hoops, with the pursuit of alley-oops over ball movement, the rise of tennis wizardry has, in part, begun to parallel the drift between America’s dream teamers of tennis and the international stars.

How close are Roddick and Blake to Federer? Combined, Blake and Roddick are 1-20 against Federer. Obviously, in our jingoistic fantasy, we’d like to grab a megaphone from a cheerleader and shout, “We’re No. 1.” We love the sound of that. But it’s not true in tennis now — not even close.

What does the scissor shot have to do with the Federer gap? Flash is wonderful as long as it’s not a defining trait. Blake in particular and Roddick on occasion seem obsessed with identifying themselves as shot makers over strategists, as contortionists over court managers.

It must tear at Jimmy Connors’s Wilson T-2000 heart every time Roddick breaks his wrist on a volley, or worse, barrels recklessly to the net without a plan.

Nuance isn’t in Roddick’s duffle bag. A peek would reveal a variety of hammers.

Blake is no more subtle. He is the thinking man’s player — loaded with perspective, layered with intelligence — but hardly ever applies his notes on the court.

In action, he is a vision of dramatic forehands and slashing backhands, all whipped like a lasso above his head. He is, in effect, a court cowboy of the rodeo kind. He ropes points. That’s him, and he is sticking to it even if he has heard tennis insiders beg him to construct points instead of detonate them.

Patience is so un-American, though. Who has time for strategy when Blake and Roddick can finish a point with flair? That’s what Allen Iverson & Company thought until their 360-degree dunks were trumped by the backdoor cuts of international players at the 2004 Athens Summer Games.

But if Roddick and Blake are too stubborn to change their all-American habits, is despair inevitable on the tennis scene? Not necessarily.

There is a solution for our short-attention span gang: John Isner, all 6-9 of him. Remember how Pete Sampras once treated each point as an easy three-step program to being No. 1 — serve, volley, winner?

Isner wastes no time, either. Crack went the 140-mile-an-hour serve as he glided to the net on his way to a first-round victory Monday. He is ranked only No. 184, and he has miles to go before he reaches threat material, but Isner’s game may be the perfect antidote for the trend of rallying trick shots.

His points don’t last long enough to include the pursuit of a scissor shot for the sake of crowd reactions and camera angles. Isner is concise. It may not be highlight-reel material, but it’s at least a step toward a cure to tennis’s version of a dunk culture.



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