Australian Open: Clash of the Almost-Titans
I experienced a strange mix of feelings Friday when I learned that American Donald Young upset fellow American James Blake in the Australian Open men's singles qualifying competition.
First, I was sad for Blake. The 33-year-old, who reached the Aussie Open quarterfinals in 2008, was trying to get into the main draw for the first time in two years. The former world number 4 has been battling age and, most recently, a knee injury.
Then, I was glad for Young. His win over a seasoned pro like Blake was a positive start to the new season after a dismal 2012 that saw his ranking fall like Congress' approval rating, from a career-high of 38 to 190. Many American tennis fans have been waiting for the flashy kid from Atlanta with the signature diamond stud earring and half-cocked cap to be as good as he promised to be. Eight years ago, as a junior, Young became the first African-American boy to reach world number 1. That golden year, 2005, was also when he won the Australian Open junior title. Just 15, he was the tournament's youngest-ever champ at the time (Australia's Next Big Thing, Bernard Tomic, now has that honor).
I saw those results against Blake and I thought, could this be Young's year, finally?
And then I felt pity, for both of them. Here's Blake, nearing the end of his career, one marked more by tough losses than easy wins. He lost an epic second round match in Melbourne in 2010 against Juan Martin del Potro, taking del Po to 10-8 in the fifth set before succumbing. He's finaled 14 times in his career, including the championship rounds at such top-tiered events as Indian Wells, Queen's Club, Cincinnati and the year-end Masters Cup. Blake couldn't find a way to beat Roger Federer and Nadal. Then again, not many players can.
There was always an air of excitement around Blake. For starters, he was People Magazine's Sexiest Male Athlete in 2002. He has a pedal-to-the-metal, all-or-nothing baseline style that has drawn criticism from TV commentators but has thrilled his "J-Block." Only the endearing Marcos Baghdadtis of Cyprus has more enthusiastic and patriotic cheering section. Blake had a remarkable, feel-good storyline: He posted his best results in 2006 (reaching a career-high number 4 in the world) and 2007, two years after breaking his neck in a freak accident in Rome, losing his dad to cancer and coming down with a condition that messed with his hearing and vision and temporarily paralyzed one side of his face. In the process, he became the first African-American to rank in the Top 10 since Arthur Ashe in 1980.
I wanted James Blake -- American men's tennis needed James Blake -- to do great things, and in many ways, he has.
Then there's Donald Young. The spin about him is, he's got the goods but he's been limited by the coaching of his parents, Donald Sr. and Illona. ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe routinely admonishes Young on air and in the media about his lack of conditioning. "Whatever he's doing, it's not working," P-Mac told the New York Times last year after Young was dispatched in the first round of Wimbledon. It was his twelfth straight loss.
At least he got to Wimby's first round. He didn't get that far for the Australian Open. Young was beaten by Brit Jamie Baker, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3. in the final qualifying round. His lefty serve failed him. He had 4 double faults.
Baker will face Czech Lukas Rosol, giant slayer (he ousted then-world number 3 Rafael Nadal in the 2nd round of Wimbledon last year), on Tuesday. Young books a plane ticket home.
At least he's got that win against James Blake to savor. If their meeting was a passing of the torch, it certainly didn't have the same import as Roger Federer beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Two African-American men, one nearing the end of a good run, the other, not yet able to break into a trot.