Friday, February 21, 2014

Blake Q&A: Retirement, Shootout, U.S. men, today's stars

James Blake poses with emcee Brad Gilbert after winning the
2012 Sacramento Challenger. It was the last title of Blake's
career, in which he reached No. 4 in the world and played
on a Davis Cup championship team. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Only six months removed from the ATP World Tour, James Blake is scheduled to play in the Champions Shootout on Wednesday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
   Blake, 34, will be the youngster in a quartet that also includes John McEnroe (55), Jim Courier (43) and Pete Sampras (42).
   Blake -- a former top-five player and thoughtful gentleman in the mold of his idol, Arthur Ashe -- has perhaps the most unusual background in the sport. 
   A native of Yonkers, N.Y., who grew up in Fairfield, Conn., Blake was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at 13 and wore a full-length back brace for 18 hours a day for five years.
   He played two seasons (1998 and 1999) at Harvard, finishing No. 1 in the country and falling to Florida's Jeff Morrison in the NCAA final.
   Within two months in 2004, Blake broke his neck during practice, lost his father to stomach cancer and developed zoster (shingles).
   Blake was injured when he slipped on a wet clay court in Rome while racing to return a drop shot and struck the net post. Had he not turned his head at the last moment, doctors said he could have been paralyzed. Instead, Blake missed only two months.
   Zoster, a viral disease often caused by stress, temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face and affected his balance.
   Blake rebounded from the horrific sequence of events to have the best years of his career. His 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) loss to Andre Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinals is considered perhaps the greatest match in the tournament's history. Almost all of the 20,000 fans in attendance stayed until the pulsating match ended at 1:09 a.m.
   It was the closest the 6-foot-1 (1.85-meter) Blake, who combined powerful groundstrokes and blazing speed, ever got to a Grand Slam semifinal.
   Blake was named the Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, reached a career-high No. 4 in 2006 and helped the United States end its longest Davis Cup title drought in history, 12 years, in 2007.
   His 2007 book, "Breaking Back: How I lost Everything and Won Back My Life," reached No. 15 on the New York Times' bestseller list. The following year, he was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year for his fundraising efforts on behalf of cancer research. 
   Blake has played in Sacramento twice, both times in the $100,000 Challenger at the Natomas Racquet Club toward the end of his career. He lost to 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Ivo Karlovic of Croatia in the 2011 final and beat Mischa Zverev of Germany for the 2012 crown.
   It was the last title of Blake's career. He collected 10 singles and seven doubles championships on the elite ATP World Tour.
   Blake lives in Westport, Conn., with his wife, Emily, and their 1-year-old daughter, Riley. In an exclusive interview, he recently discussed retirement, the Champions Shootout (www.powersharesseries.com), U.S. men's tennis and today's top players.
   Q: Are you enjoying retirement, or do you miss playing?
   A: A little of both. I absolutely love retirement. It was the right time for me to stop, but if I see some tennis on TV and have memories of a certain tournament, I think about how much fun it was playing there. But I'm quite content with the effort I put in, and now I'm into a different part of my life. That includes fatherhood, being a husband and doing other things that I love just as much.
   Q: How do you spend your time?
   A: For a few months, it's been pretty much just spending time with my family, and I've loved every aspect of it. But I'm now getting to the point where I may start thinking about other things to do with my time, possibly getting back into tennis as a commentator or helping some young players out. I've thought about other careers, taking a completely different path and maybe getting into finance, doing something in New York. I'm really not sure, but I'm at a point where I'm having those kinds of meetings to figure out what exactly is next in life.
   Q: Are you interested in becoming the Davis Cup captain someday?
   A: Absolutely that interests me. I would love to do it. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to do it quite yet because I feel there needs to be a separation from when you leave the tour until you take on a role like that. It's important for the players to see you in a different light as opposed to a player. Jim has been off the tour for long enough that the kids -- I'm calling them kids now, which is sad, because that means I'm old -- the guys on the team look up to him. They respect him, they listen to what he has to say with a bit of reverence, and I think that's important. ...  
   I've always said since I first played on the Davis Cup team I would love to one day be the Davis Cup captain, and I still would love that opportunity.
   Q: Did you watch much of the Australian Open?
   A: I did not watch much of it. I watched a little bit. I've been home, and I have a young daughter who gets up pretty early in the morning, so watching matches at 3 a.m. wasn't going to be a good schedule for me this year. I'm sure I'll watch when (the matches) are at more reasonable times at the U.S. Open and maybe the French Open and Wimbledon.
   I'm happy for Stan (Wawrinka). I played him a few times on the tour. It's too bad about Rafa (Rafael Nadal) getting injured in the final, but I heard it was pretty amazing tennis by Stan.
   Q: Did you stay home over the holidays?
   A: Yes, I was home doing the normal family stuff. That was one of the times it hit me and became clear that life was a little different when you get to be home for the holidays and really enjoy them.
   Pretty much every year of my career, I would be at Christmas dinner happy to be with my family, but I was also in the back of my mind realizing that in a couple days -- or in just one day a lot of times -- I would be leaving for Australia and would need to be in great shape. I needed to be prepared for the trip; I needed to be prepared for dealing with that heat and humidity.
   This year, it was amazing because I was able to relax, able to eat maybe an extra dessert or two and not think that it's going to be a problem when I'm playing a fifth set in Australia. It was great to be home doing that.
   Q: Did you play in the recent Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament?
   A: Yeah, I did. It was a lot of fun. I got to play with Chris Kirk, who was a ton of fun. He's another tremendous athlete. We played in the same foursome with Andy (Roddick) and John Mallinger. I had never played there, and the courses are beautiful. I hope I get the chance to play them again, but if I only get the chance to play them once, it was an experience I'll never forget.
   Q: Do you play much golf?
   A: I used to play a decent amount when I lived in Tampa (Fla.). I'd finish practice, and we could go right out to the course and play. I'd play with my brother. But I haven't gotten as much of a chance to play lately being busy with my daughter, and living up in Connecticut, there are really only four or five months out of the year where it's really good weather to play. But when I get those opportunities, I jump at them.
   Q: What's your handicap?
   A: I played (at Pebble Beach) as a 9. I'm always around an 8 or a 9.
   Q: Have you been playing much tennis?
   A: I have not been playing a ton of tennis compared to what I was throughout my career. I've hit with some of the juniors in town here. I have a few friends who are teaching pros, so I'll help out and go to their clinics once in a while. I think I'll continue doing that. I love seeing the kids get better, but I haven't exactly been training the way I used to. I'm sure I'll ramp it up a little more before some of these (senior tour matches) I'm playing with Andy, Pete and Andre and all those guys because I'll need to be better than normal. I still work out, so I should be all right.
Blake combined powerful groundstrokes with
blazing speed. 2012 photo by Paul Bauman
   Q: How will it feel to be the young guy instead of the old guy?
   A: (Laughs) It'll be interesting. I still remember being the young guy on tour and how quickly it transitioned to being the veteran or the older guy, the guy kids look up to or the one who can impart wisdom on the young guys. Now to be back to being the young guy again will be a little weird because it seems like it's been a while since I was that young guy on tour. It'll be fun, although I don't think I'm even the youngest with the fact that Andy's (on the senior tour). Even though he retired a year before me, he's younger than me.
   Q: Do you consider yourself the favorite in Sacramento?
   A: Um, I don't know. There are such great players, and it's one set, so absolutely anything can happen. We're going to have a good time, we're going to do our best, and hopefully no one will get hurt, but I don't know if there's a real favorite. I hope I make it out of there on top, but I'm not as concerned as I used to be about that.
  Q: Did the guys on the regular tour tease you about your age toward the end of your career?
  A: Oh, sure. The guys definitely made fun of me for being old. I fully expected that, because when I was a kid, I teased Todd Martin and Pete Sampras about their age. I deserved to get it right back when I got to that age.
   Q: What did they call you?
   A: Gramps. ... I had been dating my now wife for quite a few years. I wasn't going out after matches like the young guys were, and they let me know that I was old and married even though I wasn't married. That was my lifestyle, and I was OK with being grandpa for a while there.
   Q: Why have U.S. men struggled for the past decade, other than your Davis Cup title in 2007?
   A: It's tough to live up to the standards that were set by the Agassi, Sampras, (Michael) Chang, Courier generation. Andy and I did our best. I feel like we had some pretty good success. Andy was inside the top 10 for about 10 straight years, I was inside the top 10 for about four or five years, and the Bryans were the best doubles team in the world. It got us a Davis Cup title, which hadn't been done for (a long time).
   We were really happy with how we did, and nowadays it's becoming even tougher. The competition is tougher, the game is more physical, and the game has become more globalized. There's a top player from Serbia who never would have been seen 20 years ago. When I was on tour, there was a top player from Thailand (Paradorn Srichaphan) who never would have been seen 20 or 30 years ago. (Tennis) has just become more accessible to the rest of the world, and it's tougher (for Americans) to dominate.
   (John) Isner and (Sam) Querrey are doing their best. They're great players, but it's just really tough these days. If there's a little bit of a lull in American tennis, it's going to come back hopefully with a vengeance.
   I know Isner has it in him. His goal is to win a Slam, and I really think he has that ability. It's not easy with him being 6-10. Injuries creep up on you pretty quickly when you're that big. Sam has a lot of talent. He's a little bit searching for his game right now, but once it does click in, I think he'll be in the top 10.
   Q: No U.S. man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Roddick in 2003. Do you think the drought has been blown out of proportion?
   A: I do, because outside of Juan Martin del Potro and now Stan Wawrinka, there really haven't been many Grand Slam champions outside of Rafa, Roger (Federer) and Novak (Djokovic). Lleyton (Hewitt) won a few back then, but otherwise, it's been dominated by a few guys.
   That has changed a ton about our sport. There's been a real domination that didn't used to happen because the surfaces used to be much more varied. Nowadays, the surfaces have become much closer together. That lends itself to one player dominating.
   Back in the days of Sampras and Agassi, there were clay-court specialists, there were guys who specialized on faster courts, and nowadays the best player in the world is the one who can play on that one very similar court that we've all been playing on for the last few years.
   Q: Will Federer win any more Slams?
   A: I like to think so. He's a great guy, a great champion, the best of all time, in my opinion. A lot of things have to go right. He's getting up there in years, so it would be tough for him to win one if he has two or three really physical matches in a row. But if a lot of things fall into place and he doesn't meet Rafa at any point -- because Rafa really seems to have a game plan that works well against Roger -- then I think he has a chance to win one more, especially at Wimbledon, where he's had so much success and has a ton of confidence. I'd like to see him win one more, because I know that would be a big deal to him.
   Q: Do you see Wawrinka winning any more Slams?
   A: I don't know. It'll be interesting to see how Stan reacts now to being a Grand Slam champion. It's pretty tough because of how good Rafa, Roger, Novak, del Potro, (David) Ferrer, all those guys really are. (Wawrinka) won a couple of very, very close matches there, so for him to do that again might be difficult with all the strain on his time and the pressure that will be added. I have a feeling he'll either win a few more or no more.
   Q: Do you see anyone else outside of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray winning a Slam in the next year or two?
   A: I really think (Tomas) Berdych has a chance. Berdych is a great player. I think people have questioned sometimes whether he can beat Rafa because Rafa's really had his number lately, but he's had most of these guys' numbers.
   Berdych just needs to break through with his confidence. He's confident most times, but when it gets late in Slams, he might not have that same confidence. If he can finally get over that hump, he has a ton of talent and is so professional in the way he prepares that he'll have a chance. He's beaten all the top players. He just needs to put it together in a Slam.
   Q: Have players gotten taller since you came on the tour, and if so, why?
   A: I definitely think players have gotten taller. When I came on tour, I felt like I was above average in height, and by the time I left the tour, I felt like I was one of the shorter guys.
   The game has become more physical, so it's created more and more real athletes, and the athletes are getting bigger, stronger, faster, as they are in every sport. You see football players benching more, you see them being taller, you see them being faster. And basketball, same thing.
   That's the nature of sports. Guys' training gets better, guys' nutrition gets better, and they become better and better physically.
   Q: Do you still get comments about your match against Agassi in the U.S. Open?
   A: Yeah, I still do every once in a while. A lot of times, fans will say, "I was there" or "I still remember being up late and watching that match; that was great tennis." That's nice for me to hear.
    I wish obviously I had won that match, but it's nice to hear that it was a part of tennis history, or at least recent tennis history. People will remember where they were, remember when they were watching that and remember it for what it was. It was an excellent match (between) two competitors beating each other up as much as they could but still having the respect that we had for each other's games and each other's personalities.

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