Olympic tennis fire smolders
Love is zero in tennis. It also is what James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez have little of for each other.
Without some history, Blake’s third-round match against Gonzalez in Monday’s BNP Paribas Open was merely another day at the office for two players in the top 20 -- Blake 13th and Gonzalez 17th. Both are big names in the sport, Blake for the United States and Gonzalez for Chile.
Both are here at this premier Indian Wells event to add to rankings, to their millions in prize money and to get a shot at one of the big guys, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.
Blake’s last shot at Federer is what led to the intrigue Monday. When he upset Federer in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament last August in Beijing, it put him in a semifinal against Gonzalez.
That resulted in a dramatic and controversial defeat for Blake, and memories of that clouded Monday’s match in the bright blue skies of the desert. Blake lost again, this time a feeble 7-5, 6-1 showing that had him subdued afterward.
“This was just a bad day,” he said. “It hurts. It makes me want to get back on the practice court.”
His 4-6, 7-5, 11-9 loss to Gonzalez in Beijing probably hurt more. It cost him a certain Olympic medal. He still got to play Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match, but lost and went home empty-handed.
Before that, he had stirred the pot of sportsmanship and Olympic spirit in a dramatic post-match news conference after his loss to Gonzalez. It will be discussion fodder for years.
With Gonzalez serving at 8-9 of the final set, Gonzalez came to the net on the first point and Blake countered by hitting right at him.
Later replays seem to show that Blake’s shot grazed Gonzalez’s racket just enough to change course slightly before going long.
The point went on the scoreboard for Gonzalez, and after a dismayed Blake got no satisfaction from the chair umpire, he stood and gave Gonzalez a long stare.
“Fernando looked me square in the eye and didn’t call it,” Blake said that night.
It had been such a close match that, in the end, Gonzalez had 136 points and Blake 135.
An agitated Blake met the media and said that situations such as that, in sports such as golf and tennis, are honor situations. You call those on yourself. He added that Gonzalez’s failure to do so was especially grievous because this happened at the Olympics, the poster child for fair play.
Gonzalez, who went on to lose to Nadal in the gold-medal match, responded that night by saying, “It was just one point.” And, “There is an umpire.”
He also said that if he were “100% sure” the ball had ticked his racket, he would have called it.
Flash forward to Monday afternoon on the stadium court, the first meeting of the two since Beijing. Blake managed to break back for 5-5 in the first set, and that was his highlight. His only one.
Both denied any direct connection between China and Monday’s outcome. But Blake clearly hasn’t forgotten, and Gonzalez clearly wishes everybody would.
“What happened in China is out of my mind,” said Blake, hunched over the microphone and far from his usual expansive self. “I haven’t lost any sleep about it since then. Once I get off the tennis court, I don’t think about it as much.”
Have he and Gonzalez sat down and discussed what happened?
“Nope, we haven’t,” Blake said. “We haven’t really said a lot to each other since then.”
And later, “I said what I said in China, and I absolutely stick to it. I respect this game too much to ever shortchange it. . . . I sleep very well at night, thanks to that.”
Gonzalez, questioned later, shrugged at most of the questions and said China had not even entered his mind Monday.
“I try to go to the next round, always,” he said. “That is what I do.”
Asked specifically about the incident, he said, “It’s part of pass [passing shot]. I didn’t feel anything. That’s it.”
Blake is 29, Gonzalez 28. They have now played each other 10 times in official ATP matches, with Blake winning the first three and Gonzalez the next seven.
That doesn’t include a 2006 Davis Cup match just down the road from Indian Wells at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage. In that one, Blake won the first two sets, including at 6-0 in the second, and served for the match at 5-4 of the third. Then Gonzalez rallied and won, taking the final set at 10-8.
That match took 4 hours 20 minutes, but neither that, nor Monday’s match, was as painful for Blake as a loss of an Olympic medal, probably his last shot at one.
Who is right and who is wrong will be debated for years. There is no debate over feelings.
No Christmas cards will be exchanged. Handshakes at the net, like Monday’s, will be perfunctory. If you run across these two having dinner together at a restaurant, assume that one is a look-alike.
It is tennis love lost.