Interview with James Blake Re: Davis Cup and Clay Court Tourney (3/07)

TIM CURRY: Thanks everyone for joining us today. We have with us James Blake, who
is currently ranked eight in the world and is a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team
that will host Spain in the 2007 quarterfinals in Winston Salem next weekend,
April 6, 7 and 8, the site of where James made his Davis Cup debut in 2001.

The following week, James will be one of the players competing in the
U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Club in
Houston April 9 and 15. James is 9 at the event, having reached the
quarterfinals four times, and was there for the finals last year when his good
friend Mardy Fish won the singles title.

With that being said, we’ll start with questions.

Q. I was wondering, the change back to the green clay at the clay
courts, how do you feel about that? Have you talked with some other players and
gotten input from them about it?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, I’ve heard the courts ‑‑ the green clay
there is nice. I’ve heard the club has changed around quite a bit.

I do know that the McIngvales always do their best to make sure we have
great quality court to play on, and they really treat the players great. I’m
assuming they’ve done a great job in taking care of the green clay courts, which to
be honest the Americans are probably more comfortable on, probably played on it more
than the red clay, because of them growing up in America, you see a lot more green
clay courts. Hopefully it will be an advantage for the Americans.

Q. Is one slower or faster than the other?

JAMES BLAKE: Red clay is a little slower, but that could also be kind
of the way the surface is underneath the clay in Europe, with their watering system,
the way, I don’t know, it’s built.

I think the red clay over in Europe is usually quite a bit slower than
the green clay we have here in the States.

Q. This is the last year that the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships
will be held at the Westside Tennis Club in Houston. What memories do you have of
the event held there?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, it’s going to be too bad to see it go. That was
where I got my second ever tour event win over Christophe Rochus. I had won
before over Mal Washington.

Took a couple years for me to get my second one. For me that was a
breakthrough, I was pretty happy with it. I also got my second doubles title there,
I think. I don’t know if it was my second or third, with Mardy Fish. To win a
final with my best friend on court was fun. We had a great time.

Other than that, I’ve been stalled in the quarterfinals. Looking
forward to hopefully getting past the quarterfinals this year. Each year I seem to
run into a really hot player, a guy that’s playing well, or have an off day in the
quarterfinals. Looking forward to doing better.

I definitely remember the doubles success and winning a title there with
my best friend Mardy.

Q. How important is it to you or for the United States to hold a clay
court event? There’s a few of them. This is definitely one of the most prominent
ones. Do you think there should be more to help you prepare for the clay season?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, it kind of depends. There’s probably two schools of
thought, one being you want to improve your weaknesses. Some people might be of the
school where you just want to concentrate more so on your strengths.

Obviously, Americans have had more success on the hard courts. We have
more hard court tournaments. Some people might want to just focus on our abilities
to do well there, hopefully do well at the US Open and the US Open Series, things
like that.

I like the challenge of learning on clay, getting better on clay,
playing against guys who have been playing on it their whole lives. I would like to
see a few more. This one has been a great place there at Westside Tennis Club.
They’ve done a great job. We’ve had unbelievable fields. I think it would be great
to have more Americans playing that and being able to excel on clay.

Q. Talking about your training since Miami, have you been back in
Tampa? What have you been up to?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, I’ve been in Tampa. Been training real hard
actually. I’m excited. I probably, looking back, may have stretched myself a
little thin with my schedule at the beginning of the year, playing too many matches,
having that on the horizon. All the matches, kind of all the tournaments, all the
media things, just in general a lot of engagements.

I think now having this time off, it was somewhat unplanned, I’ve gotten
to do the two most important things, which is work hard and rest. So I’m really
excited about that. I’ve been able to just relax when I get the chance when I’m
done doing all my work on the court, a lot of the physical stuff. I’ve done a lot
more physical stuff to hopefully be ready for the French Open, for the clay, when
you’re going long three‑out‑of‑five‑set matches,
two‑out‑of‑three‑set matches.

I’m excited about the hard work I put in. Whether or not it pays
dividends right away on the clay, but hopefully it will pay dividends at some point.

Q. Talking about physical things, I’m sure you’ve heard about Andy’s
hamstring injury. What do you make of that? How does that affect the team’s
mindset coming into next week?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, we have a goal, and that’s to win and get through to
the semifinals. Obviously not having Andy, our best player, our leader, our No. 1,
if we don’t have him, it’s going to definitely affect us.

He’s a great player. We all know he’s going to do his best to get back
and be healthy. But we don’t want him to injure himself for later. This is an
injury that could be tricky. We all know hamstrings are something that could be
serious. We’re hoping he’s okay.

If we have him, we like our chance. If we don’t have him, we’re lucky
enough to live in a country that has exceptional depth. I feel confident going on
the court as the No. 1, having Mardy Fish as the No. 2, or even Sam Querrey or Robby
Ginepri. I’m still excited about the whole weekend and the whole week there.

Q. James, even though you haven’t gotten past the quarterfinals, were
you pretty disappointed to hear the Clay Court Championships was leaving Houston?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, it is too bad, because I really like what the
McIngvales have done. They care about the sport of tennis, the players, everything
like that. I definitely think it’s something that would be nice to stay there. I
felt like I’ve been pretty comfortable there, gotten to know a little bit of city.
We played a Davis Cup there, as well.

It’s too bad. But, you know, hopefully with change something good will
come of it and the next tournament will be just as well‑run, just as friendly
to the players, get the same kind of field that the McIngvales have gotten. I know
it’s going to be difficult, but hopefully it will happen. We’ll see.

Q. The French Open, you’re playing against guys who played on clay
their whole life. How much is that a disadvantage for you at the French Open?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, I mean, it’s definitely a disadvantage. Those guys
have been training for it. They’ve gotten much more used to it. They move better
on the clay. But hopefully we know how to play and we’re able to adjust.

I really hope I can adjust well enough to beat some of those players.
Some of the guys like Nadal have found ways to adjust on hard courts and play great
tennis on hard, so hopefully we can do the same on clay.

Q. Is it easier to make that adjustment from clay to hard court than it
is hard court to clay?

JAMES BLAKE: I think so, but I’m probably biased because I grew up on
hard courts and I think it’s easier to deal with the movement and the pace of the
ball on the hard courts, just the quicker pace than dealing with clay where you’re
slowed down a little bit and also the movement.

I feel like it’s a little less natural because you’re sliding, not as
stable. I’m sure a natural clay courter might say the opposite, so I don’t know.

Q. Anything that can be done in this country to kind of hope there’s
more success at the French Open than there has been in recent years?

JAMES BLAKE: Everybody on this call, just more clay court tournaments
possibly, having the juniors practice on clay more, become accustomed. I think some
of it’s been bad luck. I think last year I ran into some pretty tough players in
Almagro, Monfils. Andy has been injured a couple times there.

I think a bit of it’s bad luck. A bit of it’s just bad draws. I don’t
think there’s anything specific that really needs ‑‑ I think sometimes
people panic a little too quickly in dealing with just a couple years of a problem.

Q. Were you a bit let down that Nadal will not be in
Winston‑Salem?

JAMES BLAKE: I think the fans might be, but for us, we still have the
same goal. I obviously have a pretty good record against Nadal. Andy got beat by
him in Indian Wells, but I still would like his chances on an indoor hard court.

It’s definitely tough for the team because they probably would have
counted him as a pretty solid No. 1 obviously.

With his huge season, the clay court season coming up, I think we
probably all in the back of our mind realized the possibility that he might not be
able to go for Davis Cup. With I guess the injury, it made it obvious he couldn’t
go.

Like I said, we have a ton of depth on our team. If Andy is out, we can
put in Mardy Fish. They have an extremely deep team as well, with the fact they
took out Nadal, but they can replace that with David Ferrer, who is top 15 in the
world, an excellent player on any surface.

It’s tough for the fans, but we know it doesn’t make it much easier at
all. They do have two great players, solid doubles team, though we kind of like to
count on our doubles team pretty much going into any tie.

Q. Green clay being a different consistency than the red clay, is it
not as good of a preparation? I know you like the tournament, but is it not quite
as good of a steppingstone as it would have been on red clay?

JAMES BLAKE: I don’t know, because I’m ‑‑ I’m going to be
practicing for about two weeks on clay back here at Saddlebrook. That’s green clay.
They have some red clay here. I like to practice on the green clay. I don’t think
it’s that big a difference.

I think the biggest thing is getting used to the movement. On any clay
court, you’re going to have to deal with the sliding, sometimes being a little
unstable. If you’re just getting ready for that, I don’t see a problem practicing
on the green clay. It’s just a matter of adjusting quickly to the little bit slower
conditions.

We’re all athletes. We should be able to do that. I’ll get over to
Rome early enough to hopefully be adjusted and that won’t be an issue.

Q. Paul Goldstein mentioned in a blog recently, it’s concerning a
Player Council proposal for new rules regarding players that return from doping
suspension, to make it more difficult to get wildcards in lower‑level
tournaments. Is this a rule that directly ‑‑ was the concept of the
rule because of the Cañas case or something you’ve been talking about for a while?

JAMES BLAKE: It’s something that’s been talked about for a while. I
don’t want to get too much into Player Council business because we do try to make
sure we keep that until we officially make a rule or something.

Basically it’s something where we think penalties should be more harsh.
We really want to get the whole notion of a clean sport out there and make sure
people know that we’re testing a lot, which we do, and the tests are accurate. And
if someone gets caught we’re going to punish them, we’re not going to just let them
off easy or anything.

I think it’s important to do. I think the council has taken that
thought, that they want to make sure that people know this isn’t a laughing matter,
this isn’t something that we can just gloss over, a positive drug test. We’re
making that clear and we’re trying to make the penalties even more harsh than they
are.

Q. Were you surprised by Cañas’ match against Federer the other day?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, I didn’t see much of it, but I’m definitely
surprised that just about anyone in the world can beat Federer twice in a row. But,
yeah, it’s very surprising. But Cañas, before he did get suspended, was a top 10
player in the world.

It’s not like it should be that big of a surprise to anyone that he can
play great tennis. It’s amazing to see him do it so quickly.

Q. You had a bit of a wrist problem the last few months. Has that been
a reason for some of the disappointing results the last few tournaments?

JAMES BLAKE: It definitely affected my training a little bit. I pulled
out of Memphis because of it. It affected my training that week, maybe a little bit
in San Jose. Since then it’s been fine. Completely healed. Feeling good.

No, since then it hasn’t been a problem at all.

Q. Sounds like you’re not playing Monte‑Carlo. How does that
happen?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, for me it’s something that doesn’t quite fit into
the schedule. It’s going to be real tough to go from Houston all the way over to
Monte‑Carlo, then come back just for a week or two to train for Rome.

For the Americans, that tournament has never been exactly the easiest
one in the schedule. I’m not going to be able to make it to that one.

Q. Any sanctions for not doing that, because it’s a mandatory event?

JAMES BLAKE: Well, I think I’ll get a zero pointer. I’ll lose my
chance to get points there. I believe there’s a way that you’re allowed to miss one
and not get fined. This will be the one I miss.

Q. The curious thing about the Davis Cup, if you think about it,
everyone plus the captain, you and Andy, Pat, obviously Mike and Bob, have had a
brother or have a brother seriously involved in the sport. Can you talk about that
as something that helps you out, is supportive, gives you an extra plus?

JAMES BLAKE: For me it was a huge help, having a brother go through
everything I was ready to go through for three years in advance. You know, there’s
no real substitute for firsthand experience. If you have an older sibling go
through it, I think it’s about the closest thing you could have.

For me it made a big difference. I got along with my brother great once
we got a little older, we matured a little bit. I followed him all the way through
Harvard, just loved being around him, and still have him help me out at times now in
terms of practice, just anything.

He’s been great for me. I assume John is the same way with Andy. About
the same age difference. I guess John’s a little bit bigger. With John and
Patrick, I don’t know exactly how their relationship was ’cause that one might have
been a little different with the older brother having so much success and doing it
before him, that it puts such a kind of tough expectation on the younger brother.

For me, I had my brother with a lot of expectations, but I at a
relatively young age I was kind of able to meet those same expectations and then
probably surpass them at some point. So that was a little difference there. That’s
probably the same thing Andy and John are going through.

It definitely helps having that person in your corner, that person that
knows what it’s like to train. They know how hard it is to be out there. They kind
of know what you’re going through every time you step on the court for practice or a
match.

I definitely hear my brother more than anyone else around when I’m
playing matches. I hear him in the box cheering and knowing what’s going on in the
match, knowing which are the really important points, things like that. It really
does make a difference to have someone with you like that.

Q. In terms of the Bryans, you’ve seen them a lot, but are you amazed
how in tune they are, almost if as one?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, it’s incredible. I played them quite a few times in
doubles. It is amazing that you’re playing a real team. You’re not playing two
doubles players, you’re playing a team. You’re playing guys that are moving so well
together. They know where each other is going. They barely need to talk when
they’re serving. They know what they’re doing.

It makes it difficult because there’s no other team in the world, I
don’t think, that is like that, that has that advantage, having played that many
matches together, knowing each other that well.

It is kind of crazy. It gives us a huge advantage. That’s part of the
reason they’re the best doubles team in the world, as well as having unbelievable
hands. Mike has great returns. Bob has a huge serve. They just play great
together.

Q. Is there just one quick story how they’re very much brothers, watch
out for their own backs, fun to hang out with, finish each other’s sentences?

JAMES BLAKE: They’re a lot of fun to hang out with. They have a ton of
stories that have been told from their juniors and stuff that they probably get
embarrassed by now. I won’t rehash any of those. It’s been written about how much
time they spend together, how they’re always around each other.

I don’t know if they have as many embarrassing stories. They’re
definitely becoming their own people more so than when we were kids. They kind of
seem to almost talk and act as one, and now they’re branching out a little more,
especially now with Mike having a pretty serious girlfriend.

It takes him away to be with her, so Bob is on his own sometimes.
Definitely created much more of their own personalities now.

Q. I wanted to see how your confidence is going and how you’re mentally
doing, not having the success as you had in the past lately?

JAMES BLAKE: I’m feeling great actually. I mean, obviously I haven’t
had a ton of success in the last few weeks, and that’s frustrating. But being
realistic, I knew at some point in my career these kind of things were going to
happen whether it be a loss of confidence or fitness, whatever happened, I just
haven’t played great. Those things are bound to happen after having so many good
results.

I’m just ready to turn around hopefully, but I’ve always prepared for
the situation. Last year things were going so well that we kind of ‑‑
with my coach, I would talk about the fact that I’m going to have to, at some point
in my career, deal with some ups and downs.

Right now is an up. You got to ride that and deal with playing well
when things are going well, stay positive, not get too ahead of yourself. If you
get down, if there’s ever a time when you’re losing some matches, not to get too
down on yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

Obviously I’m still a competitor. It hurts every time I lose. I get
down on myself for a little bit. I have to be educated about it and realize the
only thing to do now is get back to the practice court, play hard, figure out what
the problems are.

Like I said earlier in this call, I probably was stretched a little too
thin, and now I’m kind of making the conscious decision to not let that happen and
make sure my focus for the next however long I feel like I need it to be is tennis
and rest. Those are the two most important things in my career right now. That’s
what I’m going to try to accomplish.

Q. How do you practice and prepare going into the hard courts, then to
the clay? During your travel season, how do you prepare for the clay season? Are
there courts around when you’re traveling?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, I practice at Saddlebrook. That place, one of the
few places that has all the surfaces, all the Grand Slams, red clay, green clay,
hard court, Rebound Ace and grass courts. I can practice there getting ready for
any situation.

That’s been great for me. Right now I’m practicing on the hard getting
ready for Davis Cup, because for me Davis Cup is so important. I’d like to succeed
there. That would be a huge boost to my confidence even though it’s been raining a
little bit lately.

Succeeding in Davis Cup would go a long way to make me feel better and
more confident. Then the clay I’ll have to adjust to quickly. Hopefully I’ll be
able to do that quickly for Houston. If not, Houston will be a way to improve for
Rome and Hamburg and the French Open. We’ll see if I can do that. My main focus
right now is getting ready for the Davis Cup.

Q. While it sounds like from Patrick’s comments on the air, even what
Andy was saying after his press conference, he’s going to do everything he can to
play. Are you sort of mentally preparing yourself for maybe having to be the
stopper on the team, the No. 1 guy coming up next week?

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, I mean, I’m ready for any situation. I mean,
basically my goal going into any of these ties is for me to win two matches.
Whether I play the No. 1 on Friday or on Sunday, I know it’s going to be difficult.
In their situation, their No. 2 is going to be very difficult, too.

I’m not worried. I don’t think there’s a huge difference, to be honest,
between Robredo and Ferrer in terms of ability. They’re both excellent players,
both extremely talented, and both extremely quick, have great returns. Either way
I’m going to have to play tough. Whether I played Robredo on Friday or Ferrer on
Friday, I know I’m going to have a difficult task. That’s what I’m looking at.

I’m not thinking so far ahead as to whether or not I need to be No. 1 or
No. 2 or anything like that, I’m just thinking about the fact I’m going to have to
try to win a few matches. Whatever the situation, I need to do that.

If I do that I think I can count on the Bryans getting us one point and
we’re looking pretty good. It definitely helps to add a little security with Andy
there being our No. 1 because he’s been so effective in matches where he’s had to
‑‑ where he’s been able to close out a whole tie. I think he’s
undefeated when he’s playing that fourth match to clinch.

It definitely adds a little confidence. But I’ve got a ton of
confidence in Mardy Fish, too. He’s my best friend on tour. He is a great guy.
He’s also an exceptional talent. He’s come back from injuries. Very happy to see
him back. Really happy to see him back. I’d love to see him succeeding in Davis
Cup, as well.

Q. In your mind, Mardy would be the next in line? There’s also the
prospect of Sam Querrey.

JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, it’s tough to say. That’s Patrick’s decision.
That’s why he gets paid to make those tough decisions. I wouldn’t want to do it,
because Robby Ginepri is someone that has been there before, a great player that
maybe struggled with confidence for a little bit.

Sam is a young up‑and‑comer that would be just very
dangerous on a fast indoor court. I think he’s going to be dangerous on any court
most of the time, but fast indoor especially.

We’ll see who will be that next in line. I think if Mardy is healthy,
which he seems to be right now, then I think he’s the next step because he’s got
exceptional talent, confidence and he’s been there before. I think he’s got a good
chance of being there if Andy isn’t.

Q. Is success in the Davis Cup helping the state of American tennis in
an ATP and tour sense, or are the Cup and things like Grand Slams very separate
pieces as far as engaging the top tennis countries in the world?

JAMES BLAKE: I think it would help in terms of quieting the naysayers
of saying tennis isn’t as strong in the States anymore. I don’t necessarily always
think that the team that wins the Davis Cup is always considered the best country
for tennis because there are some countries that are going to have so much depth.

For instance, Argentina at one point had probably eight guys in the top
hundred, and four of them were in the top 40 probably. Having a situation like
that, but then not winning a Davis Cup, still a lot of the people would consider
them the best tennis country. It still does make a difference.

A lot of times it ‑‑ the biggest thing it shows is the guys
have heart. You’re not playing for ranking or anything like that when you’re
playing for the Davis Cup. You’re playing for your country, a few guys fighting it
out in three‑out‑of‑five‑set matches.

They really respect that when it comes to the other matches on the tour.
They know you’re not going to give up, you’re going to fight hard for everything.

It’s something that we all take pride in and hopefully it can be
something we can share together at the end of this year.

Q. Where do you see American tennis as far as the world goes? Where do
you think we are?

JAMES BLAKE: I think America is still doing great. Like I said, we
have two guys in the top 10 right now. We’ve got the best doubles team in the
world, in my opinion. We’ve got Mardy Fish, who is coming back from injury and
playing great.

Sam Querrey is exceptional, exceptional young talent. Robby Ginepri
hopefully coming back into the form that got him into the top 15 in the world. I
really like the chance of America in the Davis Cup and as well on the whole global
scene because it’s very difficult to have one country really dominate with as many
countries that are playing, excelling.

I think we’re up there at the top ‑‑ one of the top,
hopefully soon to be the top of the list in terms of strong tennis nations.

TIM CURRY: Thanks, everyone, for joining us. Thanks, James, for the
time.

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