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James Blake learns to let go

NEW YORK -- Shortly after winning his first-round match, James Blake was hobbling around with a big ice pack strapped to his knee and more padding bulging on his shoulder.

Strangely enough, he was talking about how healthy he's feeling. A year ago, he was struggling with knee problems and even said retirement was a possibility if things didn't improve. Now, the knee is feeling better and the ice pack is just to keep it that way.

"I think it was just general healing," he said. "We've probably been working a little smarter."

Surprisingly, what Blake has discovered is that trying less means more improvement. "My trainer and I have been on a path to get this healthy, and at one point we just said, 'You know what, we're going to deal with it, with a little bit of pain; it's never going to be perfect,' and just accept it," he said. "Because we were trying to get it to perfect, and at 31 years old, it's tough to be perfect. There's always going to be nagging things at this age after 12 years of beating up our bodies the way we have.

"And then once that happened and I just kind of relaxed and didn't stress about it and just dealt with a little pain, it felt great. It's actually felt better."

It's just one of many ways Blake has slowly been letting go of his perfectionism and rigid ways. He branched out from his childhood coach, Brian Barker, in 2009, hiring Kelly Jones, and had only his physio in tow at the start of this season. About a year ago, he began taking anti-inflammatories as part of his treatment for the injury, having earlier preferred to avoid all such medications. But these changes are really to try to stay the same.

''It's not a new Blake; I hope it's the old James Blake -- you know, back to the way I was playing a few years ago before the knee injury and before the was bad,'' he said. "But either way, I'm having a lot of fun and I'm back to really trying to get better and having fun doing it."

After his ranking tumbled, Blake returned to the Challenger circuit this spring, winning two events to climb back into the top 100. His only Grand Slam appearance of the year was Wimbledon, where he lost in five sets to Marcos Baghdatis. But despite few deep runs at the ATP level this year, Blake's losses have generally been to strong opponents.

He'll take on another one in the second round when he meets fifth-seeded David Ferrer. Ferrer's consistency will be a big challenge for the flash-and-dash Blake, but the American does hold a 2-0 career advantage against the Spaniard. Ferrer is also a little short on match practice, having missed part of the summer after hurting his hand.

U.S. Open Regionals

There are two second-round matchups between Americans on Friday at the U.S. Open, but they have even stronger regional ties than that. Andy Roddick takes on 18-year-old Jack Sock in a meeting between two players originally from Nebraska -- not exactly a tennis hotbed.

"I think we're the only two teenagers to play tennis in Nebraska in the last 30 years, and we're both in the U.S. Open," Roddick quipped.

Robby Ginepri of Georgia takes on John Isner, who played for the University of Georgia.

Meanwhile, two local girls will be trying to capitalize on their upset wins in the previous round. New York-born Irina Falconi, who defeated Dominika Cibulkova, now takes on Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki. Christina McHale of New Jersey beat Marion Bartoli and will face Maria Kirilenko.

"I think the fact that her and I both have New York roots, we're from up here -- it's just unbelievable," said Falconi.

Who wants to be a surprise quarterfinalist?

Monica Niculescu, Lucie Safarova, Alla Kudryevtseva and Angelique Kerber. Remember the names -- one of them will be in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. They're the four left from the quarter that once contained Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska, with Safarova the new favorite to advance.

Nadal resumes service

After a bit of a scratchy start in the first round, Rafael Nadal returns to face Nicholas Mahut. Mahut is best-known for taking part in the longest match ever, going more than 11 hours over three days with John Isner at Wimbledon.

Nadal isn't worried about getting caught up in anything similar. "That's not going to happen," he said. "That's only in very special situations, in very special matches between two big serves."

A big serve is what Nadal doesn't seem to have this year, a contrast to last year when he had his best-ever serving performance at Flushing Meadows. But he's not writing off his chances because of that. "My serve never going to be huge, I know that," he said. "The serve help me a lot to win the tournament, but I won the tournament because I was playing fantastic from the baseline."

But the defending champion is happy to report that he's been able to practice his backhand this past week -- having had to avoid the stroke after burning the fingers on his right hand at a restaurant just over two weeks ago -- and says he's hitting the ball well. "I was practicing really well, much better than in the previous tournaments," he said.

Next task is to make it show on court.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.