In 2004, James Blake's life was getting more perfect by the day. A rising tennis star, with each passing year his game seemed to improve. In 2002, he was named Sexiest Male Athlete by People, and along the way he continued to gain in the rankings and earn respect on the court. Each day seemed to offer a new milestone, a new achievement; he was leading a charmed life and loving every minute of the ride.
But that life came to an abrupt halt in May 2004 when Blake broke his back in a freak accident on the court. A few months later, as Blake was recovering from his injury, he suffered another tremendous setback when his father–the man who had raised him and provided the inspiration for his tennis career–lost his battle with stomach cancer. Shortly after his father's death, Blake's situation was further complicated when he contracted Zoster, a rare virus that paralyzed half of his face and threatened to end his already jeopardized tennis career.
Breaking Back tells the story of the tumultous year that followed these three devastating events, detailing how Blake persevered through hardship to become one of the best tennis players in the world. Here Blake explains how the wisdom and words that his father imparted to him over the years gave him the ability to succeed in the face of these seemingly insurmountable odds. Though these trials proved the most difficult of his life, ultimately this trifecta of tragedy became the culmination of all his father's lessons, showing Blake that even in death, his father was still teaching him how to be a man.
In the spirit of Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking comes this remarkable tale of strength and determination from one of tennis's biggest stars. A story of passion, willpower, and the unbreakable bonds between a father and a son, Breaking Back is one athlete's account of finding hope in the bleakest of times.
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James Blake has been a professional tennis player since 1999, when he left Harvard to join the professional tennis circuit. He grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, and currently resides in Tampa, Florida.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Bruce Schoenfeld
The zone of unreality that often separates important politicians from the real world is nothing compared to the cocoons that surround top professional tennis players. As teenagers, they're already getting handed off from tournament director to tournament director, lodged in luxurious hotels and catered to by sponsors, agents and tour officials while the endorsement checks accumulate. Any interaction with normal people in the cities they pass through is fleeting.
James Blake has always been different -- but not that different. Raised by an African-American father and white mother in an academic-minded household in Fairfield, Conn. (his middle-class parents awarded him $25 for every 100 books he read), he wasn't shipped off to a tennis academy at the first sign of precocious talent; he actually played on his high school team. For two years, Blake attended Harvard and became the best collegiate player in America. But after a flurry of interest from some of the world's biggest management groups, which saw in him the sketchy outline of a Tiger Woods of tennis, he turned professional in 1999.
Before long, he was tucked into the same cocoon as the tennis lifers, partying with Giorgio Armani, meeting the pope, accepting as his due the perks of his profession. "Life out on the tour," he admits early in Breaking Back, his chronicle of a 2004 season filled with distress, injury, illness and -- ultimately -- insight, "is often one long dream." Four years into his professional career, he'd won only a single ATP Tour event. He routinely stayed up all night after each loss, distracting himself with hours of video poker. Yet as he shamefully realized, as of December 2003, his biggest decision was whether to shave off the dreadlocks that had become his signature look and risk losing endorsement dollars in the process.
During the annus horribilis that followed, Blake came to understand the shallowness of such an existence. First his father, an ex-soldier called "iron man" by his wife, fell ill with stomach cancer. He was already deteriorating when Blake suffered a freak accident on a practice court in Italy that fractured a vertebra. Then he contracted zoster, or shingles, which rendered half his face immobile, forced him to shuffle down hallways like an invalid and threatened to end his career.
The fracture had a silver lining: It enabled Blake to spend his father's last weeks with him. And in the midst of his own recovery, Blake experienced an epiphany: "[I] thought about how many matches I had squandered or let go out of impatience or frustration . . . how little I had bothered to learn about all the cities I'd visited. I thought about how truly unique my position was, and yet it was not until then that I'd ever recognized it as such."
As his run of misfortune continued, so did his philosophical journey. When he attempted to push through a comeback session against his doctor's recommendations, he found he could hardly hit the ball. "That was the first time when I really came to recognize the limits of willpower and resolve," he writes, words of true wisdom that I've been waiting years for any athlete to utter. (Next on my list: "God had no interest in the outcome of this game.") Ultimately, it became clear to Blake that his former concerns were hardly concerns at all. "When you play tennis for a living," he writes, "the world is pretty simple; it's the rest of the world and the rest of life that's much more complicated."
Not since Courting Danger, Alice Marble's 1991 tale that revealed (or perhaps invented) her undercover work as a World War II spy, has a tennis autobiography offered its readers so little tennis. By the time Blake offers detailed play-by-play of a match 186 pages in, we're ready for it -- and firmly on his side. Befitting the heightened state of Blake's enlightenment, the book's climax is a defeat: to Andre Agassi, in a U.S. Open semifinal.
Yet in true Zen fashion, by relaxing his grip, Blake began to succeed as never before, winning two more tournaments and earning a ranking in the world's Top 25. Taking stock of his success in December 2005, he asked Brian Barker, his longtime coach, if he was truly "bound for bigger and better things than either of us really thought were possible." Barker's response serves as a fitting coda for this admirably unusual sports memoir: "He looked at me incredulously. 'I have no idea,' he said."
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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