Blake building confidence after return

Martin Rogers

NEW YORK – Some sports injuries are so hideous, they make you want to shield your eyes from the TV screen and curl into a ball on the couch.

And some just make you want to laugh.

The injury that ruined James Blake's summer falls into the latter category, a bizarre mishap that a scriptwriter would struggle to dream up after four fingers of inspirational sangria.

"I walked into a bag," said Blake. "I was in Croatia and the lights were off in my room. I am a bit of a slob, so there were bags thrown everywhere. I walked into the side of one of those roller bags that's all hard plastic and broke my pinky toe."

Giggling yet? Don't worry if you are, because Blake himself can still laugh at the incident that kept him off the tour for five weeks and spun him down the rankings to No. 23, reveling in the absurdity of the scenario, if not the punitive side effects.

Most likely, being back in New York has lightened Blake's mood, coupled with a pair of U.S. Open victories in the opening week that provided his first tour wins since June.

Thursday's second-round tussle with Belgium's Olivier Rochus was a typically raucous Blake affair. The J-Block, his fervent crew of hollering hysterics, was in fine voice, no doubt energized by some cooling fluid of alcoholic persuasion.

This is home for Blake, the Yonkers boy who sneaked under the Flushing Meadows gates as a teenager to watch his heroes in action, only to return years later to take center stage himself. New York responds to him like perhaps no other player.

As Blake and Rochus slugged it out deep into the evening, unwittingly delaying the night session, the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium cared little for Blake's dismal form and dwindled mojo.

It wasn't vintage Blake, nor was it the sort of performance that will have struck fear into Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, or even his third-round opponent, 14th seed Tommy Robredo.

And yet it was a show, two hours and 44 minutes of fist-pumping entertainment. It might have been just what the 29-year-old needed to shake the cobwebs from his game and plant some belief into his psyche.

"I think this was great for me" said Blake. "Playing a guy (Rochus) who can get to a ton of balls and make you work is really tricky. It really makes you win because he is not going to give a lot of free points.

"It is a great feeling to know I can get through a match like that. It is good to get that test so you're not wondering if your body will hold up in a fifth set later in the tournament.

"The U.S. Open is kind of my Super Bowl. It is probably my best chance at winning a Slam. It is one of the best things about sports, having a biased crowd, having people that are cheering for you and against you. Here I feel like the home team."

Rochus, at 5-foot-5 the smallest man in the draw, scampered and scurried and gave Blake a significant fright. The Belgian held two points in the third set tiebreak that would have given him a two sets to one lead. If he had converted either, the outcome could have been reversed.

But it was the American who held firm and kept his nerve, coming through 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-3 to seal another home victory on a day in which Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, John Isner and Jesse Witten all won. If his career rises again over the coming months, he may look back on this day as something of a turning point.

Blake took a conscious decision to stop looking at the rankings during his time away, knowing he could do nothing about the inevitable southward slip.

Likewise, he has paid scant attention to his draw, refusing to look past Robredo – though it surely hasn't escaped his attention that a certain Roger Federer lurks ominously in the fourth round.

For Blake, the priority is to infuse health back into mind, body and technique, and in each of those facets, he seems to be making headway.

The title itself and even the quarterfinals may be well beyond his powers, but Blake figures to have enough in the tank to keep his merry band of backers in fine voice past the weekend.