MEMORY AND LOSS, DREAMS AND DESIRE
James Blake has never been typical. His mom was English. His dad was African-American. He was raised in Yonkers, N.Y., before heading out to the affluent suburbs of Connecticut. Suffering from scoliosis, he had to wear a back brace as a kid and hardly was a junior phenom. Once on tour, he didn’t exactly soar to the top.
Then when things were going well, he ran into a net post in Italy and broke his neck. He developed shingles, his face was briefly paralyzed and he suffered the loss of his beloved father and guide, Thomas. Still, Blake had his moments. He led the U.S. to its Davis Cup championship over Russia in 2007, the only title in the last 15 years. He then became the highest-ranked American, reaching No. 4 in the world.
Of course, he’s most famous for being the fallen warrior in possibly the greatest night match in U.S. Open history: his 2005 close-as-can-be confrontation with Andre Agassi. But of late, Blake has struggled. Fighting a gimpy knee, his ranking has fallen to No. 114. Earlier this year, he did score a win over rising American Ryan Harrison in Atlanta, but lost early in Los Angeles. He said he wasn’t sure how many more losses like that he could take. Now the father of a young daughter, Blake spoke to the media about his career, his father and his legacy.
Q. What does it feel like being back here and winning again?
JAMES BLAKE: It’s a good feeling. Every time I come back here, it gives me goose bumps walking out on Louis Armstrong or Arthur Ashe. I’m excited, and I get a lot of ticket requests. I get to see my fans and friends having a good time … I can’t believe that it’s been I think 12 years I have been playing here … It still doesn’t feel normal.
Q. That night match with Agassi, a cliffhanger, a great match.
BLAKE: I think Andre said it best that night: Tennis was the winner. Easier to say when you win … [Someone] in the locker room was saying how high the quality was. The tiebreaker was almost all winners. There were almost no unforced errors. Both of us standing on the baseline toe-to-toe, just getting after each other. That’s a fun match to be a part of. Obviously I wish I had won it, but there’s got to be someone that goes down and doesn’t quite get over the finish line …
But it was a great match. I’m happy to be a part of it. I wish I’d have won, but, I guess you could call it a win, like I said, for tennis. It’s just a match that could have gone either way, and he came up big that time.
Q. Health‑wise how are you feeling?
BLAKE: I feel great … I actually feel like I can move the way I used to, or the way I need to, to compete here. I was kidding myself earlier in the year thinking I was able to move at this level, and I really wasn’t after the knee surgery. I more wanted it to be okay than it really was. Now … I feel like I can move and be effective with my legs. Without my legs, I’m a pretty average to below-average player here … I want to just keep on playing … My knee was giving me problems for a while and I didn’t bring it up. It was something that would nag at me. Then it would go, I could be okay for half a match, and then it starts getting worse. Then I know the next day is going to be terrible … Eventually, the only option was surgery.
Q. As a kid you were struggling with a brace and weren’t exactly a junior phenom. You went on the tour and lost your guiding light (your dad) and went on to great wins and losses. We never get it right in terms of the big picture. Could you take a minute possibly and reflect on your own career, your take?
Blake: I had a back brace. I kind of wish I had braces. As a kid I came here and watched and honestly never believed I’d be good enough to come out playing. To be doing what I am is really incredible.
I haven’t taken too many moments to just step back and reflect … I just can’t believe I have been out here this long and had so many great experiences, so many tough experiences. It’s just a thrill. It seems like it’s gone by in a blur … I never thought I’d be doing anything like this, doing a press conference where people actually care what I think. It’s still a little weird. I still really love it. What I learned this summer, was that when I wasn’t playing my best, when I wasn’t able to move, it wasn’t that much fun. But as soon as it clicked in that I was able to move, I love this. Hopefully have a whole other year or maybe even longer…
Q. You said at one point that breaking your neck [in Italy] incredibly was the best thing that ever happened to you.
BLAKE: Breaking my neck was the best thing that happened to me that year because it gave me a chance to go home and see my father. I was there for the last six weeks of his life. I know my dad was so proud that if I hadn’t been hurt he would have told me, “Get ready to play the French. Stay over there. I’ll be fine.” I could almost guarantee those words would have come out of his mouth. I’ll be fine. I’ll be okay. Even though I’m sure he knew things weren’t going well at that time.
Hurting myself that day, lying on the clay, it felt terrible. You never know when something happens whether it is a positive or negative. That was a positive. It got me to go home and see my dad and just sit and talk to him sometimes and just be around him. Not that many people get the opportunity to say the things they want to say towards the end of someone’s life, and he got to say the things he wanted to say. I got to say the things I wanted to say … Losing him was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I would never have had to go through that. I would never wish that on my worst enemy, losing their parent so early. Now that I am a parent, I couldn’t imagine. I want to be there for everything my daughter goes through, and I hope I’m there to see her grow up and go through all the trials and tribulations of high school and college and marriage and all that fun stuff. I can’t wait. But it was real tough to see my dad getting sicker and getting weaker.
Q. Are you to the point in your career where you’re starting to get old jokes from your peers?
BLAKE: I have been that way for a while. I knew I was going to get them, because when I was a kid I dished them out. So I knew they would come back to haunt me. I used to make fun of Todd Martin for taking so long to warm up and his gray hair, for just being old. He said, “Just wait, just wait. You will be, too.” Now I’m getting it from everyone. I deserve it … I’m getting the old jokes, the grandpa jokes, and I’m okay with that.
Q. Along those lines, do you have any theories on why Federer, who is now a parent, is also a fountain of youth?
BLAKE: The guy’s a freak. He’s so good. It’s really incredible. I could spend another hour talking about the things I’m impressed with by him. His streak of quarterfinals, most people would have that an incredible streak just to play that many slams in a row, and he has to make the quarterfinals or better. To do it at that level and not injure yourself is amazing. It shows how much work he puts in stretching, getting his body strong enough and physically ready to play all these slams.
Q. Last year on Wall Street, we heard 1 percenters, they own 99 percent of the wealth. In this industry it seems like 1 percent of the people win 99 percent of the tournaments. Is that good for the industry?
BLAKE: As long as they’re willing to really market the sport – and I think they are. You see Roger, Rafa, you see Novak and Andy all over billboards, all over marketing … Roger and Rafa are so well respected, and Novak is practically a god in his country. Those are things that are great for the sport. It’s also important to have an underdog story, go out and beat one of the pillars of the sport. Maybe that will happen this week.
Q. With the dominance of the top three or four guys the past couple years, how hard is it going to be for an American like you or Isner to break through?
BLAKE: Well, you know, for me, I think I need to get there. I need to worry about one match at a time. I can’t worry about quarters or semis or finals right now. I am an elder statesman. I have been around and have won a lot of matches. I have beaten guys who were No. 1, that were top 3, top 4, top 5 plenty of times. There is no reason for me to go out there and be scared. It will take an unbelievable effort. I will have to play my best tennis. For Isner, with that serve, anything can happen. No one wants to play him. When he’s confident, when he’s playing well on hard courts, if he’s moving well and that serve is coming in, I don’t care, Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy, they don’t want to see that coming in. A lot of times he takes the racquet out of your hand. He’s got a chance. … His draw looks pretty solid. You know, he’s got a good chance. He’s one of my best friends on tour. I hope he does it.
Q. Speaking about people with big serves, what impresses you most about Serena’s dominance?
BLAKE: What’s impressed me most is her mind, her will to win. It’s funny, we will joke about it. You don’t want to be playing against her. She’s mentally the toughest person out there on the WTA Tour by far. She doesn’t just want to win, she wants to beat you badly. She will do everything she can to win. It’s great to see she’s back with that winning spirit and just real desire of a champion … She’s a superstar who moves the needle when it comes to selling product and getting tennis on TV. She’s unbelievable. If I ever get a chance to play mixed doubles, she’s the one I want as my partner.
Q. There was just stunning news about Lance Armstrong. In our sport, there have been incidents with Wayne Odesnik, Martina Hingis, some Argentinians and even Andre. Do you think the situation of performance enhancements is under control in tennis? Is there any problem?
BLAKE: In tennis, I think they do a great job of testing. Of course, at times it’s inconvenient to me, when I get woken up at 6 a.m. to pee in a cup. It’s their job. I know they’re doing it. I know if they’re doing it to me, they’re doing it to everyone else. I’m happy to do that. I may not be cheery at 6:00 in the morning when they’re coming, but I’m happy to do that and I’m happy to take part of in the regulations
I don’t know what to think about Lance. Cycling has seen what seems to be like the steroid era in baseball where it seems everyone is clouded. You don’t know. Like he said, he’s passed like 500, 600 tests. But I have no idea. I don’t know Lance at all. Never met him. I don’t know what he’s like. I know his story is inspirational. I know how many people he’s helped. That’s incredible. However he did it, it’s still inspirational, no matter what he did. He’s definitely someone that makes a difference in a positive way. I don’t know if erasing seven titles will matter for his true meaning to this world, because it’s going to be a positive one no matter if he has seven titles or not.
In tennis, I’m sure there are guys who are doing it, getting away with it, and getting ahead of the testers. But, you know, I do my best to go out there and win and give myself whatever advantage I can legally in terms of just protein shakes and Gatorade and that kind of stuff. I’ve got to believe it’s … a level playing field out there, but I also am realistic with this much money involved, $1.9 million for the winner of the U.S. Open, people will try to find a way to get ahead
It’s unfortunate, but I hope tennis is doing the best job of trying to catch those guys [who are] trying to beat the system.