Tale of two seasons for James Blake
By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com
HERSHEY, Pa. -- If you think James Blake's comeback season was defined by a gallant loss, think again.
Blake's epic five-set, wee-hours U.S. Open quarterfinal tussle with Andre Agassi was certainly memorable, one of those it-was-an-honor-to-be-there events. But a few weeks later, under far less ballyhooed circumstances, Blake notched his first-ever European tournament win at the Stockholm Open.
It was his second ATP title of the year, along with a win in New Haven, and added an exclamation point to his climb back from a tumultuous 2004 season in which he fractured vertebrae in his neck in a freak accident during practice, suffered a case of shingles that left his face temporarily paralyzed, and lost his father, Thomas, to stomach cancer.
Blake, 25, currently has a ranking to go with his age -- a jump of more than 50 places from his 2004 year-end ranking. He's looking forward to a brief offseason crowded with exhibitions and charity events, including his own inaugural cancer benefit on Dec. 1 in Norfolk, Va. Last week, before playing a World Team Tennis fund-raiser for Elton John's AIDS Foundation, the Fairfield, Conn., native took time to reflect on his season.
Question from Bonnie DeSimone: What exactly did it mean to win in Stockholm?
Answer from James Blake:: I'd never even been in the semis of a tournament in Europe. To go through and win one made a big difference to me, [especially] the way I did it. I was down a set and a break at one point in the second round. So I very easily could have made it another European trip where I don't have a whole lot of success and I come home and say, 'Oh, I'll get it back in the States or in Australia or whatever.' But I didn't have any thought of getting down on myself or being a little burned out because it's near the end of the year. I just kept playing my game and doing my best and that's something I'm proud of. Being a little older makes it easier to have that kind of perspective.
Q: Seems a little unfortunate that so many people saw you lose at the U.S. Open, while Stockholm didn't get nearly as much attention.
A: It started in D.C. [where Blake lost to Andy Roddick in the finals], then I did well in New Haven and then the U.S. Open, all close to where I grew up, and so I had friends there, people cheering for me. Going to Europe, a lot of people would then kind of nosedive. But I proved to myself that I can do it without all the friends and family around. Winning a tournament in Stockholm, where I really just had my coach out there with me, was pretty exciting for me, to know it's me doing it, all the hard work I've put in.
Q: Sometimes it's harder to stay back than to come back. Do you think you'll be able to keep the momentum of this season going?
A: I don't think the memory of 2004 will ever leave me. I know that things can end in a hurry. I'm going to try to keep that adrenaline rush going, and try to continue having the same perspective of just being happy to be out there and making the best of it. … This is something I think a lot of people go through the first time they have success. I had it as well when I jumped up to 20-something in the world, then dropped back down to 30 or 40 the next year. You're dealing with expectations, more time concerns, more people gunning for you. Now I feel a little more ready for that. I was coming back to that point when I got hurt originally. Now I know how to manage my time better and how to succeed and continue to improve.
Q: Any plans to return to Harvard to finish your degree?
A: I have two years left. I'd like to go back when I'm done playing. I think it might help with my transition. A lot of guys don't know when to stop or what they're going to do when they stop and I have a feeling I won't know. It'll give me a reason so I don't hang on too long … but as long as my body holds up and I'm playing as well as I am and enjoying it and feeling like I'm getting better, I'm going to keep playing. Andre's an inspiration to all of us.
Q: The word comeback doesn't really apply to losing a parent, does it?
A: It's really tough to describe to anyone who hasn't been through it. [My father] taught me everything I know about being a man. His last lesson in death was putting things in perspective and letting you know what's important. I was so lucky I was home his last few weeks [while recovering from injury] to be around him and hear him say, face to face, that he was proud of me. I think it's going to get me through the rest of my life to know that everything I've done made him proud. Hopefully I'll continue to live that way. The only thing I can do is teach my future children and anyone who's willing to listen all the lessons he taught me, about being kind and respectful to people … I want to start a scholarship at my high school because that's something my dad always took pride in. He always made sure my brother and I were scholars first and athletes second.
Blake's "AnthemLIVE" event on Dec. 1 at Old Dominion University's Ted Constant Center in Norfolk, Va., will feature an exhibition match between Blake and Roddick and musical performances by Gavin DeGraw and Blake's childhood friend John Mayer. Proceeds will benefit the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where Blake's father was treated, and several other organizations. For information, go to www.constantcenter.com.