As each Grand Slam tournament looms, a scan of the qualifying draws often throws up a name that is a lot bigger than those around it.
And Australian Open 2013 is no different, with former world No.4 James Blake to contest a Grand Slam qualifying draw for the first time in almost eight years.
Blake, now 33 years of age, finds himself having to battle through the pre-tournament event after missing the cut-off mark for direct entry into the main draw. His comparatively lowly ranking comes from a playing schedule hampered by a knee injury, which necessitated surgery and forced him to miss the Australian Open for the past two years.
“I’ve missed it … After the surgery just over a year ago I feel back to being 100 per cent, my knee feels great, pain free, and I’m excited to be back here,” he said.
It’s hardly surprising, given the Australian Open, along with his home Slam at Flushing Meadows, is one of his two favourite events on the tennis calendar.
Melbourne Park has been a happy hunting ground for Blake, who reached the quarterfinals in 2008 and the fourth round a further four times. He was also involved in an epic against Juan Martin del Potro in 2010 in which he went down 10-8 in the fifth set, with that match and his 2008 campaign among his strongest memories of competing in Melbourne.
“I’ve played really well here. I think the court surface suits me, and the crowd’s always been great for me,” he said.
“One of my favourite memories for me was beating (Alex) Corretja in my first year in the main draw (2002). Pretty tough first round and got through it in four tough sets, so it was for me a big win to beat a top player like that here at a Slam … (I’ve) had some good runs here, and hopefully can do that again.”
To do so, he’ll have to come through three rounds of qualifying against quality opposition.
Blake, seeded ninth in qualifying, kicks off his campaign against Romania’s Marius Copil, a 22-year-old currently ranked No.161, just one spot shy of his career-high of 160 achieved in November 2012.
Lurking nearby in the draw – headed by No.1 seed Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria and second seeded Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis – is the other big name in the draw, Donald Young.
Young, the one-time prodigy who peaked at world No.38 as recently as February 2012, looms as a potential second round foe for Blake.
There are 10 Australians peppered throughout the 128-player draw, including promising youngsters Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Jordan Thompson, Alex Bolt and Jacob Grills – all of whom are wildcards and, except for Grills, have all drawn unseeded opponents.
For players of Blake’s equivalent stature and age, dropping down to contest the second-tier qualifying draw can be a blow to the ego, and a step they’re reluctant to take. But the American sees it as an opportunity, rather than an inglorious demotion.
“I don’t want to be sitting at home when I feel good about my game. If I have to play quallies, then so be it,” he remarked.
“If I’m playing well, it gives me the opportunity to get through and hopefully gain some confidence in the quallies and maybe make some noise in the main draw. But these guys are hungry – I need to use all the experience I’ve gained in (the past) 10 or 12 years to hopefully get past these young guys that want to knock me off.”
He has indeed accumulated a wealth of experience going into his 14th year as a pro, a career that has reaped 10 tour titles and another 14 finals. He’s one of the oldest men still competing on the ATP World Tour, and for players at this stage of their careers, retirement questions are inevitable.
How long does Blake think he will continue to compete?
“I’m still having a lot of fun, so that’s the reason I’m still playing,” he answered.
“But life changes – I’m missing home right now, I’m missing my wife and daughter, and I think that in the end may make a difference about whether or not I want to keep playing or not. But right now I still love it, and I want to keep playing as long as my body will hold out and as long as I still have that desire.
“I know right now I have that desire.”
Qualifying action begins at Melbourne Park on Wednesday 9 January 2013.