This nice guy exits early, again

By GARY SHELTON, Times sports columnist
Published June 30, 2007

WIMBLEDON, England -- If the Americans were any better at this sport called tennis, perhaps we could blame the latest disappointment on the Brits.

If only the men of the United States had not forgotten which end of a racket to grip, we could lay this at the feet of the queen instead of, well, the feet of James Blake.

Alas, we cannot.

Alas, Blake's wake belongs to us all.

A pity, that. There for a minute, all things still seemed possible for Blake, the affable athlete who has made Tampa his home. One point, and he was still alive. One putaway, and success could be had.

It was late Friday afternoon, in a fourth-set tiebreaker, and the ball hovered above the netcord as if in a photograph. It was as easy as tapping in a short putt. It was as easy as stacking dishes into a cupboard. All things considered, it was less difficult than opening a can of balls.

And Blake missed.

And once again, American tennis staggered.

In the days to come, that will be the shot that haunts Blake the most. Once he has returned safely across the pond, once he has finished heaping praise on Juan Carlos Ferrero, this will be the shot that gnaws at Blake. On Friday, he had the chance to change a lot of minds -- about him, about his countrymen -- and he swatted it into the net.

Even given the current state of tennis in the United States, this was disappointing. True, Ferrero was once the No. 1 player on the planet, but that was in a different time (2003) and in a different place (on clay courts).

Here, Ferrero was supposed to be a testy but tamable opponent. He is the Mosquito, after all. Blake has lived in Florida long enough to know how to handle those, wouldn't you think?

"I lost," Blake said. "Juan Carlos played great for the second and third sets, like he was confident, like he was playing when he was No. 1 in the world. I felt like he played unbelievable."

Actually, he didn't. That wasn't Federer on the other side; this was Ferrero. It would not have taken a great player to beat him. However, Blake had 29 unforced errors, and in the third set, he managed to get in only 39 percent of his first serves.

"I don't want to see this one for a while," said Blake, who was seed ninth. "I'm not going to sit through a 2 1/2-hour match and watch the whole thing.

"I don't feel like my confidence should be altering too much. Obviously right now, right after the match, I'm disappointed. I think about the things that I could have done. Obviously, I could have made that volley at 5-4."

Again, it's a shame because Blake, 27, is one of those athletes you would love to see succeed. He's known as one of the nicest players on the tour, and he's overcome a series of ailments during his time on the tour, and it was at Wimbledon four years ago when his father, Thomas, was diagnosed with cancer. American or not, it would have been nice to see him make a run into the second week of Wimbledon.

Perhaps they would have enjoyed it around the Empire, too. Betty Blake, James' mother, is from England, which makes him the closest thing to a favorite son as the British fans had left. Andy Murray is out with an injury, Tim Henman has been eliminated, and Greg Rusedski has retired.

But they don't expect much on the nearby grassy perch from their heroes around here. It doesn't matter if it's Henman Hill or Rusedski Ridge or Mount Murray -- or Blake's Bluffs, for that matter -- when the success only lasts so long. It's a hill built on disappointment.

On Thursday, Blake had joked that the local fans should rally behind him for the rest of the tournament. So go ahead. Suggest the Brits filled him with bangers and beans and placed him firmly on the wrong side of the road. Suggest that they taught him all about this stiff upper lip stuff.

Of course, we know a little bit about disappointment in America, too. Once, we ruled this sport. No more. Blake's loss puts the hope for the U.S. men squarely on the back of Andy Roddick. Again.

If he doesn't win, perhaps the U.S. should get a hill of its own.

Either that, or we should convince Roger Federer to move to Sarasota.