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January 26, 2007

James Blake

PETE HOLTERMANN: James, thanks for taking the time to join everybody on this call. James Blake is obviously a now heralded American. Last year won five titles, and so far in 2007 has successfully defended the first of those a couple weeks ago in Sydney before reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.
He ended 2006 as the No. 1 ranked American. He's hoping to defend that in 2007 as well.
Without further ado, I'll turn it over to Bill Rapp, the tournament director of the SAP Open.
BILL RAPP: I want to welcome everybody on the call. James, thanks for taking the time to be with us. I know in the past you have had some success in San Jose, a little rough in singles a few times.
I know you won the doubles title here in 2004 with Mardy Fish. I understand you're going to be back playing doubles with Mardy again. Is that the case?
JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, definitely.
BILL RAPP: What are your goals when you come to San Jose this year?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, to play a little better than I did last year, that's for sure. It was tough coming from Davis Cup last year. I'll be doing the same this year. Hopefully I'll be able to adjust a little better.
Now hopefully having a little more experience of the schedule, how it goes, playing as many matches as I did last year, hopefully I'll be able to adjust a little quicker and hopefully play some of my better tennis in San Jose.
BILL RAPP: Wednesday night, which is Valentine's Day, February 14th, Andy Roddick will play the first featured match at 7 p.m., and then James will play the second match that night. We have a lot of young ladies pretty excited about that.
PETE HOLTERMANN: James, you didn't want to comment further?
JAMES BLAKE: About the ladies? I think I should refrain from that. I might get into trouble.
PETE HOLTERMANN: We'll open it up for questions at this point.

Q. Your state of mind since you lost in Australia. Where are you at now?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, I'm still getting over the jetlag. Other than that, I feel good. I had a tough one with Fernando. He's obviously playing great tennis, though. It's tough when you have chances. I had chances in both the first two sets.
It was just one of those days where a lot of those matches have been going my way, I'd been playing very confident in those crucial times of matches. That's what got me to the top 10, top 5 in the world. Every once in a while it's not going to be your day when that happens, and that time it wasn't.
To be honest, I wasn't feeling all that great, which was a little frustrating to have that happen in the middle of a Grand Slam, especially one that I thought -- I was coming in playing very well, confidently. Fernando kept the pressure on, made me feel even worse. A lot of credit to him.

Q. Do you look at getting to the quarters as a successful tournament?
JAMES BLAKE: Tough to say. It's more about how I feel like I'm playing. Last year at the US Open, getting into the quarters, I felt like was pretty successful since the way I played against to lose to Roger, I wasn't disappointed. I played well. I took a set off him for the first time. I felt like I had chances to take a second set off of him. I'm up two sets to one, you never know what can happen. I felt okay about that.
But then again, you know, this time it might have been a little disappointing here at the Australian Open getting to the fourth round and feeling like I definitely could have won that match if I was feeling a little better, if I just capitalized on a few chances. I definitely didn't feel like I played as well as I could have.
It's more about if I feel like I'm playing really well. If I'm playing really well and happen to lose on a given day because the other guy's playing great, I have to tip my hat and say, Too good.

Q. Do you feel much pressure as the top-ranked American in the post Sampras, Agassi era?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, I don't know if I'll need to worry about that after Monday because I think Andy's going to pass me again.
I definitely felt honored to be a part of that list. The people you mentioned as the No. 1 Americans: Roddick, Sampras, Agassi, Courier, it's a pretty impressive list. To be a part of that is an honor.
While I was the No. 1 American, especially finishing the year the No. 1 American, it did make me think and stop to reflect on if I thought that was ever possible, how hard I've worked to get to that, how much I appreciate it.
The added pressure was something I knew was going to come with it. To be honest, I was helped out with that by people like Andy and Andre and Pete because they're always willing to give advice. Especially Andy to go through that at such a young age, deal with all the pressure. I was very impressed with how he did it. Having him around to talk to made my job a lot easier I think.
Proud of him for being the No. 1 American again, playing the kind of tennis he's playing right now. I think it's going to be, you know -- I think the two of us will hopefully stay up near the top of the game for a while. If we keep going back and forth, it will be hopefully fun for the American public, the viewers, the fans.
It's tough to have us holding up Grand Slam trophies all the time because of that guy Federer, but other than that, hopefully we're two of the more exciting players in the game that can compete with him.

Q. You talked about the difficulty coming back from Davis Cup. What do you plan to do differently in terms of preparing for that?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, it's going to be tough. Last year it wasn't quite as far of a trip from La Jolla to San Jose. It just takes a lot out of you mentally. It's very draining in terms of how much you put into it. Not only do you play your two matches - for me I'll be playing two singles matches - but it almost feels like you're playing more than that.
Every match Andy plays, I'm invested into. I'm sitting in the locker room watching it and getting emotionally involved in it. The Bryans, the whole day Saturday watching them. Supposed to be relaxing for us. It is a little relaxing having the Bryans since we're pretty confident in the way they play. Still, any time it's a breakpoint, you're invested in that.
It's more of the emotional thing. Hopefully this year I'll be able to -- just being a year older, more mature, I'm hoping I'm able to handle the emotions a little better. It would really help me if we could clinch it in three matches, and then Sunday not have to worry about it too much. They have an excellent team, so that's not going to be easy to do. I can't really count on that.
Otherwise just kind of find a way to -- as soon as it's over try to put it behind me, think about moving forward into San Jose and the other tournaments in the United States coming up.
For me I'm hoping it's going to be much better because I'll be looking forward to getting back on hard courts right away. I'll be pretty happy to go from the indoor clay to the indoor hard, playing back on my favorite surface. Right away when I step on the hard courts, I think I'll be pretty happy.

Q. How would you characterize your rivalry with Andy? Do you think it's going to another level going back and forth as top-rated Americans?
JAMES BLAKE: It's funny, I hope it does. The fact that I won the last two definitely gives it a little more validity to have it called a rivalry, or the fact that I passed him in the rankings. You know, I've said it a few times, he's really the leader of our Davis Cup team. He's the No. 1. I got to be the No. 1 American with help from him, with the fact that he dealt with this pressure for so long on his own. We all felt like we needed to help him, kind of unburden him just a little bit.
I think the fact we're both up there, it is going to add some to the rivalry. We're going to kind of feed off each other a little bit in the fact that we don't -- there doesn't have to be any more one person that's bearing the brunt of all the pressure of the post Sampras, Agassi, Courier era.
That's why we get along so great. We're such good friends. We know we're doing this together. It's a lot of fun to have such a great guy and classy guy to go about my business with.

Q. One of the biggest stories in American tennis so far this year, Serena's incredible comeback. She gets a lot of criticism as a diva, lack of commitment. Could you talk about Serena, your thoughts about her, the comeback.
JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, sure. She's an unbelievable talent. To have the kind of career she's already had and people talk about a comeback and that she was out for so long, is the career gone, all that kind of stuff.
For her to prove she's clearly not done, she's in the finals of the Australian Open, coming from being ranked 81 in the world. A lot of people forget she's 23 years old.

Q. She's 25.
JAMES BLAKE: She's 25. My fault. Sorry. Still, she's got many years ahead of her to be successful, to win more Grand Slams, to be a finalist in more Grand Slams. I've just been incredibly impressed by her.
She obviously had some time where she was injured, had possibly other interests for a little while. But she's showing she's still intent on getting back to the top of the game and proving that she is one of the most talented players in the world, because she could -- she still has the possibility of having a career that could put her as one of the greatest of all time, if not the greatest, because she's won all four Grand Slams in singles, all four Grand Slams in doubles.
I think she's two shy of winning all four in everything. The only other person to do that is Martina, I think. Martina did it when she was 40 something. Serena can do it probably by her late 20s. That's something that's very exciting for women's tennis.
I'm very proud of Serena, how hard she does work to get back and how she deals with the criticism. Like you said, there's a ton of criticism even though she's making a run to the finals of the Australian Open from an unseeded position. She's still getting criticized, which to me is crazy.
She deals with it with a smile. She's obviously going through other tough times with the trial, court dates and things and the unfortunate situation with her sister. It's just amazing she still has the resolve to come back. It's obvious she doesn't need this for financial reasons any more. What she's doing is because she wants to prove that she really does have the desire to play great tennis again. I'm really proud of her for that.

Q. Why does she draw such criticism? Is it because she's a strong, in-your-face lady? Do you know what that's about?
JAMES BLAKE: No, I don't know. I don't want to blame you guys, the media. I mean, I think a lot of times the story that makes the better headline is negative. If you put her on as someone that's dealt with tough times, is coming back, sometimes that's not as glamorous as just kind of bashing someone.
She's been criticized I think sometimes unfairly. Sometimes maybe it is fair, I don't know. I would never criticize her. I think she's a great person. It is also tough I understand from a media's perspective because they don't really know the person. I've been lucky enough to get to know her very well. That's probably why I'm so glowing in my comments about her, because she really is a genuinely great person.

Q. How is your work going with Mark Merklein? I'm wondering what dividends you're seeing from that so far?
JAMES BLAKE: He's been great. We've gotten along so well. We always got along, so that wasn't a surprise at all. He pushed me to work harder. He's giving me tons of things to do.
I had actually a little injury in the off-season. I'm not sure I would have dealt with it nearly as well as I did with Mark kind of at the helm, making sure that we were on it all the time. We were very aggressive about dealing with it. I had like a tendinitis in my knee. I probably would have either taken a long time off and rested it or just kind of played through it and dealt with it fine.
What we did was, you know, we made sure to be extremely professional about it in terms of doing the rehab, taking real good care of it. Even now we still have to do things that are preventive. He's helped me in being extremely professional about all that kind of stuff, about being real diligent about the stretching, about massages, about nutrition, all those kind of things.
He's been great and I'm really happy about it. I feel like I'm hopefully going to be in better shape for the whole year. I'm also just going to feel better on the court all the time, I hope.

Q. It's always made me uncomfortable with a bunch of out-of-shape tennis writers say a player is. You've been criticized for not having enough endurance. How does that make you feel? Do you feel like somebody can really look at you and know what you're going through physically, or maybe the criticism is legitimate?
JAMES BLAKE: It's funny to get a question like that. First of all, I do think it's just about infuriating. In fact, one of the most frustrating things for me to ever hear is people telling me what I feel like or what I look like I'm feeling. My coach Brian can attest to it. He knows now after many years not to tell me what I feel, but to ask me.
To hear people say that I look this way, you can tell from something I'm doing on the court how I'm feeling, what I should be doing, it's very frustrating. I don't know if Serena deals with it better or worse than I do. She's clearly not listening to any of it.
In terms of people criticizing me for not having endurance, I invite any of them to come out and do some of my workouts. The people that have come and done those, that come to Saddle Brook and to the work outs, there's not many that do a day with me, then two days with me and feel good the third day.
What has been a problem throughout my career, I will admit, has been cramping. I've had a few -- a couple of issues with that. Every time I've dealt with it, I go over it with Brian. Now I'm going to start going over it with Mark to make sure it's not a problem. I've never been tired when I get to the point of cramping. Sometimes it has to do with nerves.
What Mark and I are going to do is try to figure out exactly what's causing it, whether it's a deficiency in magnesium, potassium, something I'm not getting in my diet that could be a problem. I have had that problem before in five-setters. I don't think it's going to be a problem going forward, because I know Mark will be real professional about it.

Q. I did some research into Greek legends this afternoon to get my question in shape. As a Harvard guy, you might remember there was a Greek figure Sisyphus, the guy who was always pushing the rock up the mountain and the rock was falling back on him. Is there a little frustration, a little quality of that in terms of the whole field and Roger, and with all you do the rock keeps falling back?
JAMES BLAKE: Yeah, I mean, it's tough 'cause all of us feel like we're making progress. I definitely felt like I got better in the off-season. I feel like I got better all of last year. Then at the end of last year he still beat me up pretty badly. The amazing thing is that he seems to still be getting better.
Everyone talks about Andy was getting so much closer, closing the gap. Then he went out and proved a point in the end in the semifinals of the Australian.
It is tough. Instead of feeling like the weight of the world is on our shoulders like Sisyphus, what we need to look at it as motivation. That's what I try to do. He has to do it.
Sort of the rationale in a match, if someone is playing so well, say, Okay, I'm going to make him do this all day to beat me. I'm not going to beat myself. In my mind the motivation is I need to keep getting better. I'm going to make him do this all year. I'm going to make him continue to keep improving. I'm going to make him have to beat me every single time, if that's in the finals or semifinals.
I want to keep playing my game. If he can keep getting better, then at the end of my career I'll sure hold my head high and say, I lost to the best player that ever lived. I have to deal with that. I think I can still sleep at night and not be too worried about that. I can accept the talent, or in some respect the lack of talent that was God-given to me.
I'm pretty proud of the amount of work I've done. I'm going to use Roger as that kind of motivation. There is someone out there that is continuing to beat me, and he's continuing to beat the rest of the field. I think we all need to improve and make him keep beating us that way. If he does, then he earned every accolade he's gotten. He's earned every one so far.

Q. In 20/20 hindsight, maybe not such a great idea for Andy to pull on Superman's cape and win that XO just before?
JAMES BLAKE: I don't think that had that much to do with it. That exhibition tournament is great for the fans. It's something for the players. Great warmup, get totally used to the climate. It's right in Melbourne, right near the Rod Laver Arena.
It's a great tournament, but the players don't put a whole lot of stock in it, as much as the writing in the papers about Andy beat Roger or anything like that. It's more for the warmup. At least to me. I never played that event, but it seems like it's more just practice sets, practice matches.
If Andy had beaten him in a practice set three or four days before Australia, no one would have written about it. But it happened to be in one of those things where there are fans involved.
I don't think that was a big deal.
BILL RAPP: I know you played in the warmup before the Australian, you beat Moya in the final, drew him in the first round. Any interesting conversations or happenings with that?
JAMES BLAKE: Yeah. Funny, we actually -- when we played the final on Saturday night, we decided that since we're playing Saturday night, we probably have to play Tuesday in Melbourne, we should get there as quickly as possible. We decided to charter a plane together. We flew together that night and just got out of there.
We finished the finals, both did our press, showered up, went to the plane together. Me, my trainer, my coach. Him, his trainer, and coach. We jumped on the plane together, had an hour and a half ride over to Melbourne, then had to do it all again on Tuesday.
It was interesting. It's a situation that's very unique. It doesn't happen very often I don't think on tour. Generally the two guys in the finals are seeded, so they're not going to play each other first round next week. It was real interesting.
It's also a very difficult situation, or it was a difficult situation for me to win the first one and then you feel like you're playing a guy that's playing -- I really felt like he was playing top 20 or top 10 tennis. To go in there against a guy that probably now has no pressure because he lost the last one and can be very dangerous, to stay focused, be able to win again. I was real proud to beat such a great player for a second time.
BILL RAPP: Last year you were here when John McEnroe made his return, played doubles with Jonas. If you and Mardy were going to play them here this year, what would your game plan be?
JAMES BLAKE: First we'd have to see if McEnroe has aged at all in that year, still playing great. Jonas, being in the finals of the Australian Open, he's proven he's playing great doubles right now. I don't know. We'd have to try to attack John's serve a little bit.
From what I hear, what I saw there last year, didn't look too easy. Keep him off the net because we know his hands are incredible. John's touch and hands and feel around the net, doubles instincts, are amazing.
I don't know. Generally my strategy is to get some forehands, start ripping. Mardy's is rip a couple backhands, get into net, stick some volleys. We'd probably just keep it simple like that.

Q. You and Andy seem different in a lot of ways. How would you describe your relationship?
JAMES BLAKE: We're probably different in a few ways, but we're great friends. He's the one that's a little more temperamental at times. I'm a little calmer. He really is a great guy. I'm happy for all the success he'd had. I'm proud of him.
I mean, he's a little younger than me, but in certain ways I look up to him in the fact that he was the No. 1 American for so long and really did it without the help of a lot of us. He was doing it alone. Dealing with all the pressure of the post Sampras and Agassi era. Dealing with all that kind of pressure on his own was very impressive.
He's actually come to Tampa to train with me a few times. I've been to Austin. Did an exhibition there in the off-season. We ended up hanging out with him for the whole night. We get dinners on the road together a lot of times. We're just really good friends. We play cards together. We do anything on the road. We hang out all the time.
Davis Cup, it makes it so much more fun to play Davis Cup because we get along so well. We're always kind of the same mind at Davis Cup. We know we're in it together to bring home a trophy hopefully one of these days. To have that feeling with a guy that I'm really friends with, I really do enjoy his company, would mean so much to me because we both really -- as much as we possibly can for any kind of tennis match live and die for those Davis Cup matches. Those are the ones that we're most proud of when we win, and those are the ones that sting the most when we lose.
We can see that in the locker room. When I come in the locker room after a loss, or he comes in the locker room after a loss, that's a time when that guy really needs to be picked up. I have done my best to pick him up every time he's lost in Davis Cup, and he has done his best to pick me up after I've lost in Davis Cup. That's something I think we'll both remember forever.

Q. What would you say makes him a great guy?
JAMES BLAKE: He's very generous. He's a genuinely nice guy as well. He cares about other people, not just himself, which is amazing given the success he had at such an early age. A lot of times that can lead to people sometimes feeling like the world revolves around them, that they deserve everything that's coming to them. But he really does appreciate when others care about him. He's loyal to friends he's had for a long time. He's loyal to Davis Cup. He's just overall a nice guy and also extremely generous. I can't count how many dinners he's bought me or times he's sent a gift out of the blue. Just generally a good guy.
I don't know. It's tough to describe what makes someone a good guy. He's just really nice.

Q. When you're playing Andy in poker, what is the best way to separate him from his chips?
JAMES BLAKE: Get him to get a pretty good hand. That's what is going to separate him from his chips. Sometimes he will overrate it just a bit. You got to wait for your hand, too. He's liable to make a play at a mediocre hand sometimes.
I haven't played with him in a little while. He says he's really been improving. He did well at his charity event. We'll have to see. Maybe next time he'll be taking my chips.
PETE HOLTERMANN: James, thank you for your time. Thank you for joining the call.
I did misspeak in the intro. James reached the fourth round in the Australian Open.
JAMES BLAKE: Quarterfinals sounds better.

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