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James Blake Blazes Back

Sophomore postpones pro tennis experiment

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Harvard men's tennis coach Dave Fish had a pretty nervous summer. He had already lost two of his top players, Philip Tseng '98, and Tom Blake '98, to graduation. Meanwhile his best remaining player, sophomore James Blake--Tom's brother--was spending the season trying his hand at professional tennis.

Fish knew that Blake, a strong pro prospect, might decide to make this his full-time job. At the very least, he would take the fall semester off.

Then about two weeks ago, Assistant Coach Peter Mandeau talked to Blake on the phone and received the best possible news for Harvard tennis--James Blake is coming back.

"It's really great to have him back for the full year," Fish said. "He changes the level of the team."

Blake decided to forgo an autumn of grinding it out on the professional circuit and will play for Harvard for the entire 1998-99 season. His summer experiment took him to all levels of professional competition--satellite, challenger and the prestigious ATP tour.

Blake even came within one match of qualifying for the U.S. Open. Still, he decided to return to Harvard.

"I wanted to come back because I thought I was close to being at the next level, but not quite there," Blake said. "One more year of college tennis will make me a much stronger competitor next year."

Blake showed just how far he was from that level during Open qualifying. In the first round he valiantly battled No. 144 Wolfgang Schranz to a 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 victory despite cramping in the third set. Blake required intravenous fluids after the match. The next day, he cruised to an impressive 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 343 Luis Vosloo setting up a final match with former top-15 player David Wheaton.

"I played well in [my second] match," Blake said. "I felt like I had a lot less pressure on me after I won that first match."

Against Wheaton, Blake opened with a flurry, immediately going up two breaks to take a 3-0 lead in the first set. Wheaton's experience proved too much for Blake to overcome, however, and he came back to grab the next game en route to a victory in straight sets.

"I always felt like I was in the match," Blake said. "But he was Just a little bit better on big points. That's how I often beat my opponents; he was just better at it."

The U.S. Open culminated an entire summer during which Blake met the world's best and fared quite well. At the satellite level he defeated Stanford's Mike Bryan, as well as No. 484 Raviv Weidenfeld and No. 350 Alex Reichl. On the ATP circuit, he competed at the tennis classic in Newport, R.I., where he lost in three sets to the quirky Jeff Tarango, currently ranked No. 62, and narrowly lost No. 145 Alex Radulescu, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the first round of qualifiers at the Pilot Pen International Tennis Tournament.

"The most important thing for [Blake] is that he gets to play people at or above his level," Fish said. "He'll gain experience and figure out how to beat them."

One immediate lesson Blake learned is that he must improve his fitness level. The increased range of ground strokes, heavier topspin and more dynamic second serves of the pros clearly took their toll on Blake's body. Twice during ATP competition--during the U.S. Open and Pilot Pen--Blake had to be treated for cramps.

Rising to that fitness level will not become any easier here at Harvard.

"The guys on the tour have this as their job so they are working out 12 months out of the year, without worrying about an economics midterm," Blake said. "I'm just going to have to make time."

Still, Blake already feels that his pro experience should pay immediate dividends during the college season. He expects to transform an admirable professional showing to a dominant collegiate effort.

"I will be very relaxed playing matches this year," Blake said. "I won't be playing just to beat the person; I will be working on never letting [them] into the match."

Fish will rely upon Blake to display that dominance as he will have the No. 1 singles and doubles slot matching him against the very best of Harvard's opponents each tournament.

"Blake changes the level of the team," Fish said. "He adds punch in NO. 1 singles. Every time he takes the court we know we have a great chance to win."

Aside from excelling in the No. 1 single slot, Blake is expected to help every member of the team develop. Just as Blake improved from competing against world-class players this summer, the team should improve with the opportunity to practice and train with him.

"Anybody grows around better players," Fish said. "When the guys practice with Blake it raises their level as well."

Though he is returning to Harvard this year, Blake is by no means abandoning on tour I realized how much there is to do around here besides tennis," Blake said. "I think having a little bit more life experience will help me much more in the long run."

Of course next summer I hope to return to a full pro tour if improvement comes. Otherwise, it will probably be revisited, but to contemplate such pleasant new vistas is great.

Still, Blake clearly appreciates the value of a Harvard education.

"I had a great time this being on tour I realized how much there is to do around here, Blake said. "I think having more life experience will help more in the long run." MEN'S TENNIS SCHEDULE (HOME MATCHES IN CAPS)

DATE  TOURNAMENT 9/24-27  Clay Court Champ. 9/25-27  Ball St. Invit. 10/2-4  Kentucky Invit. 10/9-12  ECAC Champ. 10/15-18  All-America Champ 10/23-25  Penn Conf. Champ. 10/30  CRIMSON FALL CLASSIC 11/5-9  Rolex Regionals WOMEN'S TENNIS SCHEDULE (HOME MATCHES IN CAPS)

DATE  TOURNAMENT 9/18-20  William & Mary Invitational 9/24-27  Clay Court Champ 10/9-11  Brown Invitational 10/16-18  ECAC Tournament 10/22-25  All-America Champ. 10/31  Rolex Individuals

DATE  TOURNAMENT 9/24-27  Clay Court Champ. 9/25-27  Ball St. Invit. 10/2-4  Kentucky Invit. 10/9-12  ECAC Champ. 10/15-18  All-America Champ 10/23-25  Penn Conf. Champ. 10/30  CRIMSON FALL CLASSIC 11/5-9  Rolex Regionals WOMEN'S TENNIS SCHEDULE (HOME MATCHES IN CAPS)

DATE  TOURNAMENT 9/18-20  William & Mary Invitational 9/24-27  Clay Court Champ 10/9-11  Brown Invitational 10/16-18  ECAC Tournament 10/22-25  All-America Champ. 10/31  Rolex Individuals

DATE  TOURNAMENT 9/18-20  William & Mary Invitational 9/24-27  Clay Court Champ 10/9-11  Brown Invitational 10/16-18  ECAC Tournament 10/22-25  All-America Champ. 10/31  Rolex Individuals

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