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Rejuvenated Blake ready for next big challenge

Busted Racquet

When James Blake describes his task of making inroads in this year's Australian Open as a "challenge," you are inclined to sit up and take notice.

After all, the world No. 10's idea of a challenge is presumably somewhat different than most people's, having emerged through a series of potentially crippling setbacks to put together a successful tennis career.

As a child, Blake was forced to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day after developing severe scoliosis. Five years ago, he was the victim of a freak tennis accident, slipping on a clay court and breaking his neck after colliding with a net post. Later the same year, half of Blake's face became paralyzed and his sight was affected by an extreme case of shingles.

Blake refused to be bowed, however, and at nearly 30 years old he is playing some of the best and most intelligent tennis of his career. Three straight wins with a loss of only one set has put him into the round of 16 at the Australian Open, and within reach of his best-ever Grand Slam performance.

Next up is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, who charmed and thrilled the Melbourne Park crowd on the way to the final last year. Blake, though, has a genuine chance against the fifth seed, especially as the big-hitting Tsonga is nagged by back pain that has allowed inconsistency to creep into his performances.

The American also will be boosted by his own third-round victory against 18th seed Igor Andreev, a tough Russian who took Roger Federer to a fifth set in last year's U.S. Open.

While the Big Four of men's tennis have monopolized the headlines Down Under, Blake has managed to sneak under the radar on his way to the fourth round.

Discussions surrounding the likely winner of this event rarely go beyond Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But Blake wants to force himself into contention by building on an impressive first week.

He has qualified for three Slam semifinals in the past: in Australia last year and twice at the U.S. Open, most notably in 2005, when he lost a classic to Andre Agassi after leading by two sets.

"It is going to be a big challenge," Blake said. "This tournament is tough and the draw is still packed with the top players.

"But I'm 29 years old and I'm still eager. I am going to be trying to match the enthusiasm of Tsonga and these other young kids.

"I think I have that ability because I don't feel burned out. I don't feel as worn down by the tour as a lot of guys my age because I was forced to have a break in the middle of it."

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