WASHINGTON - A year ago, James Blake returned to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in the midst of an illness that made it impossible for him to compete, and it was a terrible thing.
"A terrible feeling," he said after winning his first-round match Monday night, setting up today's meeting with No. 4 seed Radek Stapanek, the highest-seeded player on his side of the draw.
"I could see out of only one eye. I couldn't do anything, and there I was, a tournament champ. People expected me to perform well and I couldn't. It was the worst feeling."
Blake, who won the Legg Mason title in 2002, had developed zoster, a condition that affected his hearing and sight and caused temporary paralysis on one side of his face.
He felt so bad that the usually outgoing Blake declined interviews and backed out of visits with soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a traditional hour of reading to local school children.
The illness was the last straw in a long season of misfortune. In May 2004, he broke vertebrae in his neck when he ran into a net post during practice in Rome. In July, his father died unexpectedly.
Then came the zoster, which sidelined him for all but three more tournaments after his first-round loss here.
"I've grown up over the past year," said Blake, 25. "The misfortune of last year forced me into the real world. I try to make the best of tough situations. The 21- and 22-year-olds take their games and health for granted. After breaking my neck, having my father taken away and my face, balance, sight and hearing taken away from me, I don't take anything for granted.
"Now, I'm grateful to be able to smile."
On Stadium Court yesterday, there were smiles - and grimaces. Robby Ginepri, who won in Indianapolis last week, defeated Kevin Kim, 6-2, 6-3, in the first match of the day. Andy Roddick, the No. 1 seed, eased into the third round with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Giovanni Lapentti before a near-full house.
And the long-struggling Mark Philippoussis, ranked No. 209, continued his slide, losing, 7-5, 6-4, to Luis Horna, the ATP's 62nd-ranked player.
"I feel fortunate and lucky to have stayed out of the way of injury," said Roddick, 22, when asked about Blake's comments about young players taking their lives for granted. "James had a rough year, personally and physically, and he's probably the guy out here who deserves it less than anyone.
"When you see what he went through and when he tells stories about sitting at home, unable to do anything ... I think it's been a wakeup call, especially when it happens to someone you're pretty close to."
Three who weren't lucky here yesterday were No. 3 seed Tim Henman, who lost to Wesley Moodie, 7-6 (4), 7-5; No. 6 Nicolas Kiefer, who withdrew due to respiratory problems, and No. 7 Max Mirnyi, beaten by Ivo Karlovic, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
While Blake makes it sound as if he learned all the harsh lessons of life last season, he did not. He had early training in hardship. At 13, he was found to have severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which forced him to wear a back brace 18 hours a day.
"All I want to do when I'm through is look back and say I did my best," he said. "It's not about one match or one tournament. Those things aren't going to change my career."
He finished 2004 ranked 76th, and though he has worked hard on his game since this season began, he's moved little in the rankings, now at No. 75. Still, he said, his confidence is growing.
"My serving is improving," he said. "My consistency is getting better. Everything is improving. I think it's a matter of time until it shows in the rankings. I'm back. I'm able to hang [on court] with these guys - with Andy [Roddick] and Roger [Federer]. It just takes a little while for it to come together and show."
Then he was asked if it wouldn't be easier to just do something else.
"This is the best job in the world," he said. "I can't see sitting in an office ... having no time, no life. I get to order room service, read to little kids - how hard is that? Oh, there's hard work at times, but having been a kid who was 5 feet tall and wearing a back brace - that was hard.
"I've been a pro 10 years. I've made a million dollars [$1,910,245, to be exact]. I've played all around the world. I've gotten to play Roger Federer and Andre Agassi. I've gotten to play on Center Court at the United States Open. ... It was all a dream. You could take a shot in the dark and have the same chance of winning.
"I'm not going to complain because of a little bit of bad luck."
Andy Roddick def. Giovanni Lapentti, 6-4, 6-3.
Luis Horna def. Mark Philippousis, 7-5, 6-4.
Ivo Karlovic def, Max Mirnyi, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Robby Ginepri def. Kevin Kim, 6-2, 6-3.
Arnaud Clement def. Nicholas Lapentti, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Bobby Reynolds def. Alex Clayton, 7-5, 6-4.
Nathan Healey def. Gregory Carraz, 6-2, 6-1.
Brian Baker def. Ivo Heuberger, 6-2, 6-4.
Wesley Moodie def. Tim Henman, 7-6 (4), 7-5.