Finding a sunny day
Professional tennis star James Blake, who returned to tennis almost a year after a spinal injury, stops in Hampton Roads to promote a charity exhibition and conduct a youth clinic.
BY DAVE FAIRBANK
November 11, 2005
NEWPORT NEWS -- When James Blake stepped on the tennis court last January, he had no idea what lay ahead. Would he build upon the world-class talent he exhibited a year earlier, or would injury and illness cut short a promising career?
Eleven months and many trials later, Blake again is near the upper echelon of men's tennis. He had the most successful year of his career, fueled in part, oddly enough, by a loss.
Most important to Blake, he is in a position now to help others, which gives his tennis meaning and which brought him to Virginia on Thursday.
"To oversimplify it," Blake explained, "the old cliché is: You can't enjoy the sunshine without some rain, and last year there was a lot of rain."
On a sunny and unseasonably warm November day, Blake made three stops in the state, all of which dovetailed nicely with his causes and passions.
He was in Norfolk, where he promoted the AnthemLIVE! charity tennis match and concert Dec. 1 at the Constant Center.
He then came to Newport News, where he conducted a youth clinic and volleyed with kids at the Achievable Dream Tennis Academy.
He later traveled to Richmond, where he was present for the donation and dedication of personal items that belonged to his idol, Arthur Ashe, to the Virginia Historical Society.
"When we're fortunate enough to have these guys and gals that have done so well with their lives, it's extremely motivating," Achievable Dream chairman and founder Walter Segaloff said.
"Amazing," said Heritage High sophomore Tonique Merrell after hitting balls with Blake. "He's kind of a role model, how he never gives up in matches."
The Dec. 1 date at the Constant Center is an unusual event featuring an exhibition tennis match between Blake and compadre and mega-star Andy Roddick, as well as concert performances by John Mayer, Blake's childhood friend, and Gavin DeGraw.
"I feel like I'm worthy of being on this lineup," Blake joked Thursday morning during a press conference at the Constant Center. "When I did this at the beginning of the year, people probably were excited to see Andy Roddick and John Mayer, and now I feel like I at least belong on the billing."
Proceeds will go to cancer research, a crusade near to Blake's heart after his father died in July 2004 at age 57 following a year-long struggle with the disease.
"I probably will have to warn some of my friends that I'm going to be bugging them to come around and help out in causes like this," Blake said. "Hopefully, if it can ease the pain and suffering of someone like my father or keep them alive longer for their kids and their families, it's definitely worth calling in a few favors and having some of my friends and other entertainers help out."
Blake's professional cachet is on the rise after winning two tournaments last summer. His most notable performance, however, was his run to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, where he defeated second-seeded Rafael Nadal and lost an epic, five-set match to Andre Agassi that went past 1 a.m. and drained the capacity crowd at the USTA National Tennis Center.
"It wasn't anything where either of us should be hanging our head. I can say that because I'm the one that should be hanging my head," Blake deadpanned. "But I'm really not that displeased with it. If you're going to lose, it's better to lose when you're playing well and against a legend and an icon like Andre Agassi than to go out making a lot of errors."
Success in Grand Slam events was the last thing on Blake's mind when 2005 began. He suffered a broken vertebra in a freak accident in May 2004 when he slipped while practicing and rammed his shoulder into a net post.
"If I had hit on the top of my head, we wouldn't be talking about playing again," he said. "We probably wouldn't be talking about walking ever again, so I'm extremely lucky."
The injury sidelined him for two months, coincidentally sending him home for the final six weeks of his father's life. Thomas Blake was a medical salesman for 3M Company for 30 years and helped introduce James and his older brother, Thomas, to tennis.
After his father died, James Blake came down with Zoster - commonly known as shingles - in his face and head. The nerve disorder affected his vision, hearing and balance. His recovery was frustratingly incremental.
"It was a time when maybe my body was telling me I needed to be home with my family and friends, anyway," said Blake, who already had overcome a bout with scoliosis at age 13 to become one of the nation's best junior tennis players.
Blake attended Harvard for two years before turning professional in 1999. One of the sport's fastest and most gracious players, he slowly ascended the world rankings before his setbacks last year.
When he returned to competitive tennis this year, he said, "At the beginning, it was very inconsistent. I would play a match that was really good - top-20 tennis or top-50 tennis - and then I'd play a match that looked like I learned how to play the day before. I really didn't know if that was going to continue, but it took a lot of matches to get me back to where I was consistent."
Blake advanced to the final in August in Washington, D.C., where he lost to Roddick. He won events in New Haven, Conn., and Stockholm, sandwiched around his U.S. Open performance.
"The other matches we play are kind of for selfish reasons," Blake said after the clinic at Achievable Dream. "They give us the opportunity to do these kinds of things. You win matches, you make a name for yourself so you can have an effect on these kids. If I had never won a tennis match, these kids wouldn't want to listen to a word I had to say about achieving a dream, so I'm happy I had a chance to do this."