Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Being James Blake

We told the story of tennis star James Blake in “Extraordinary Comebacks 2”. In 2004, running for a drop shot, he ran headfirst into the iron net pole, broke his neck and nearly died. His recoup was further complicated with shingles, a severe viral infection, and the death of his father. It was a dark time for the young superstar.

But James made a huge comeback – all the way to the top of the tennis world. The very next year, 2005, he played the legendary Andre Agassi to a fifth set in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and won a new legion of fans.

Since then, he’s been a top player.

Which is why we were a bit surprised to see his name in the USTA Challenger tournament, Winnetka, Illinois, 2011. Just the week earlier, we saw him on ESPN, playing at Wimbledon.

But James’ ranking had fallen to 100 or so, and he was again, on the comeback trail, and not too proud to come back to Winnetka for the $50,000 tournament where he had won, and launched his career way back in 1999. Turns out he had done the same in Sarasota some weeks earlier, and emerged on top.

The Chicago Sun-Times took note of his homecoming in their June 28 edition as follows:

James Blake needed a place to play tennis in the summer of 1999.

Blake, who was 19 at the time, didn’t have a lot of options. He couldn’t get into any of the bigger ATP Tour events, so he accepted a spot in a Challenger tournament in Winnetka when Linda Goodman offered it.

It was during that week that Goodman learned Blake was as good a person as he was a player. When she needed a player to get up at 6 a.m. to do a TV spot for one of the local news stations, Blake
enthusiastically offered to help.

It was a small gesture that displayed Blake’s willingness to assist others, a quality Goodman said he still has today.

‘‘He was out there early, hitting balls with kids,’’ Goodman said. ‘‘I’ll never forget that he did that. He’s just a great human being.’’

Blake will return to Winnetka for the 2011 Nielsen USTA Pro Tennis Championship, which begins today and runs through Saturday. Blake, who is ranked 102nd in the world, lost his first-round match last week at Wimbledon.

From the outside, it might appear that the tournament this week is a step below Blake’s level. For a player who once was ranked fourth in the world, a $50,000 tournament might seem to be insignificant.

But Blake doesn’t see it that way. Not after 2004.

That year, just as Blake was starting his climb up the rankings, everything went wrong at the same time. In May, he suffered a broken neck when he slid headfirst into a metal net post while practicing in Rome. A couple of months later, his father died of cancer. Shortly after that, Blake developed a case of shingles that temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face and threatened to cause nerve damage.

Blake didn’t know whether he would be able to play tennis again. He began looking at other career options, including becoming an
author of children’s books.

When Blake finally did get back on the court six months later, he promised himself he never would take any match for granted.

‘‘I’ve learned to enjoy each aspect of my career, whether it’s rehabbing and getting back or enjoying the time when I’m at the top,’’ said Blake, who attended Harvard for two years.

‘‘He’s doing something he loves, and you never know when that can be taken from you,’’ said Thomas Blake, who has been by his brother’s side throughout his career. ‘‘He loves playing; he loves being on the court. When this is over, he’s never going to have anything like this in his life that he does as well as he does this.’’

Blake’s goals now are the same as they always have been: He wants to get better each day and play the game for as long as possible. He scoffs at the suggestion that, at 31, he’s getting too old to compete with the top players in the world. He has battled things much more destructive than age — and won.

‘‘I want to hang my racket up with no regrets,’’ Blake said. ‘‘When I’m done, I want to know I did my best. I want to know I got everything I could out of my career and I did everything for the right reasons.

‘‘I don’t have any regrets so far.’’

Older, wiser, but still competitive despite $7 million in career winnings, James Blake gave it everything he had in the Winnetka tournament.

He racked up wins in matches one and two, and all was well up to the Friday night semi-finals versus South African Rick DeVoest. Against a somewhat depleted and ailing opponent, James lost the first set, then in set two, Blake found himself down 3-5, 40-40 ---- just two points from elimnation. But somehow, he hung on, won the game, then the set, then the match.

It was an amazing comeback. Your humble author was there to see it live.

In a post-match interview, Blake admitted he thought his chances were cooked, like everyone else, but he pressed on.

James Blake taught us all a lesson the past week in Winnetka. When your comeback is written up, and entombed in a book, it is only a prelude to the next comeback you’ll have to make. And the next.

Life is nothing more or less than a series of comebacks. We use whatever mental devices we favor, or have at hand. We believe, sometimes more, sometimes less, or hardly at all. But in any case, being human, we press on. It’s all we can do.

And sometimes good things happen. That’s what James Blake reminds us. Sometimes there is a reward for pressing on.

James Blake won the 20th annual Winnetka USTA tournament the next night, 6-3, 6-1, over a red-hot Bobby Reynolds. It took a bit of “blood,” and "sweat," we don't know about any tears. During one very long point, Blake came forward to end it, Reynolds attempted to pass him, Blake dove to make a defensive stab volley, and then Reynolds did the same. Two warriors down on the court, both bleeding from the scrapes they took to try to win the point. You see a bit of diving like at the French Open (on clay), a bit at Wimbledon (on grass), but very, very rarely on hard cement courts (US Open) for obvious reasons. Blake won the point, more admiration and a bit of awe from the sold out crowd. After the match, Blake said “I left a little bit of myself on this court,” he said pointing to Winnetka’s stadium court, outdoor no. 2.. “But it was worth it.”

The tournament itself was a bit of a comeback. After hosting the likes of a young Pete Sampras in its salad days, it fell on hard times, and “went dark” from 2001-2005. But now it was back, celebrating its 20th year, several top USTA officials flying in from New York to mark the occasion. At 20, it was now one of the oldest USTA tournaments – because it pressed on, like its 2011 champion himself.

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