Three years ago, James Blake came to Wimbledon with all but one of the family members who'd made the trip with him the three previous years. The trips were all the more meaningful for the Blake clan because Blake's mother is English and spent her first 16 years in Banbury, 33 miles north of Oxford.
His father stayed home in Fairfield, Conn., that year because he hadn't been feeling well for a couple of months and was scheduled to undergo what he termed a "minor" operation during the fortnight.
After all, Thomas Blake Sr. hadn't been sick a single day in the 30 years Blake's parents had spent together. "I'll be back home before you get back," he told his wife. "It's nothing to worry about."
Blake fell in straight sets in the second round that year to Sargis Sargsian, and his mother immediately flew home to be with her husband, whom she hoped to find recuperating at home after his surgery.
But Betty Blake had a nagging suspicion while in England that her husband had soft-pedaled the seriousness of his medical predicament. Her worst fears were realized when she arrived home in Connecticut to an empty house.
A call to the hospital confirmed the gravity of her husband's condition. It turned out that Blake's father was a very sick man. He succumbed to stomach and esophageal cancer a year later on the morning of the Wimbledon men's semifinals, at age 57.
Three years later, it's a far happier story for James Blake at Wimbledon. He beat Dane Kristian Pless 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 Tuesday to advance to the second round, where he'll play unseeded, Wheel of Fortune-friendly ("I'd like a vowel please, Pat") Yeu-Tzuoo Wang of Taiwan.
With world No. 5 Andy Roddick experiencing a drop-off in his results over the past few months and Blake winning titles in Sydney and Las Vegas and posting a respectable third-round result at the French Open, it's possible that No. 8 Blake could leapfrog Roddick in the post-Wimbledon rankings and replace him as the top American.
That's an increasingly likely outcome that leaves the soft-spoken Blake, 26, somewhat humbled.
"Seeing my name higher than his is fine with me, but I still feel that he's proven himself for many years, and if I did go ahead of him it would be just barely," Blake said. "If I were to continue that for years, maybe it would be legitimate to say I'm the American No. 1, but he's still the guy."
By virtue of his win Tuesday, Blake set into motion a scenario in which Roddick has to make it to the Wimbledon semifinals to stay ahead of Blake in the ATP rankings. If Blake advances to at least the fourth round, Roddick would need to play in a third consecutive Wimbledon final to hold off his countryman.
Blake was pleased to get past Pless in Tuesday's first match on Court No. 2 without the benefit of having his A game.
"I've always felt like I was someone who needs to be playing well to win," Blake said. "It's a great feeling to not quite play your best and win, so I'm excited about that."
At No. 99, Wang might be much lower in the rankings, but Blake isn't treating lightly a player who few outside of his native Taiwan are even aware of.
"I know I can play better next round -- and I'll probably have to, [because] he's beaten me," Blake said, who lost to Wang in straight sets earlier this year in San Jose, Calif.