'The Best Athlete Book I've Ever Read'
by Darren Rovell of CNBC
I spend much more time reading business books than sports books. That's in part because I think books about athletes are usually downright awful. They tell us about things we already know about, they are for the most part badly written and, for this reason, only sell to hardcore fans who are willing to pay $24.95 in hopes of finding one story they haven't heard before.
The new book written by tennis star James Blake, co-written by Andrew Friedman, is called "Breaking Back" and it's quite simply the best athlete book I've ever read. Why was it so good? Because Blake's story--his father's death, contracting zoster, breaking his neck and his subsequent comeback--is so good that the tennis is the least significant part of the book. In fact, I counted a 60-page stretch in which not one tennis match was ever mentioned.
Most athletes write books when someone approaches them. But their years in age or their time on the court, field or wherever they play doesn't automatically qualify them as having enough worthy of an autobiography. Blake's comeback story is so rich that almost the entire book focuses on just one year of his life.
His story might have been told over and over again on Oprah, Late Night with David Letterman and in countless magazine articles, but Blake held enough back to give the reader tales he or she never heard. Are you ready for this? I cried on page 93, 103 and 110. I'm not sure if you will too (because I was reading from the galley copy), but if you don't get touched by Blake's bad luck turned good story, you're simply not human.
Lastly, the book is clearly in Blake's voice, something that doesn't always happen when an athlete and a writer collaborate. From a tennis coach who prefers to talk more than hit balls to parents who value education more than the game to a group of fans who are among the closest friends an athlete has ever had, Blake's story is worth the money HarperCollins is asking for. And the best part is that although the book ends, his career moves on and the story will continue before your eyes.
An American tennis player recalls the year he hit bottom -- then rose toward the top.
Reviewed by Bruce Schoenfeld of
the Washington Post
Sunday, July 15, 2007
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." ·
3.5 ourt of 4 stars
No matter how many times you have
watched James Blake do epic battle on the tennis court, no match can begin to
give you as much insight into his character as this single, telling moment:
He was once so saddened to see his cancer-ravaged father struggle to change
his shirt that "I turned away - not in disgust, but to help him maintain
In his thoughtful memoir, Blake (who suffered from scoliosis and wore a back brace as a teen) recounts the painful events of 2004 - during which he fractured his neck on a net post in a freak accident, lost his father and was diagnosed with debilitating shingles - then spins the tale of his successful retrun to tennis in 2005. Non-tennis buffs may grow somewhat weary as he replays a few too many tournaments, but Blake serves up the rare sports memoir that actually has a heart. He cries, he mourns, he grows, he triumphs - and we cheer him on the entire way.
Blake shows he's
a player who's worth rooting for
The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Breaking Back: How I lost everything and won back my life, by James Blake with Andrew Friedman, Harper Collins, $32.95.
The story of James Blake's dramatic comeback from career-threatening injuries to become one of the world's top tennis players clocks in at 275 pages.
They're double-spaced pages, though, thin soup for the price of hardcover books these days.
Still, it's a heck of a story, its brevity likely because it's a book squarely aimed at non-tennis fans, focusing on the last three drama-filled years of his life.
The 27-year-old American suffered a broken neck, the premature loss of his beloved father, and a nasty bout with the Zoster virus, a form of shingles, that was the biggest challenge of all.
There's not a lot about his tennis life before the accident, which occurred when he went flying into a net post in the spring of 2004 during a practice session on a wet, slippery red clay court in Rome.
Widely considered a talented underachiever, Blake probably was best known for his good looks and full head of dreadlocks. His career seemed stuck in neutral - until he was hit with a triple-whammy.
He says in the book that it was the best thing to ever happen to him. It's hard to believe, but here's why: not only did it push him to stop being a virtual spectator to his own career, but the time at home while rehabbing enabled him to spend every day with his father, his role model, who eventually died of cancer.
In the current sporting landscape, with more athletes seemingly in court than on court, it's a positive, welcome story.
Even before all of his trials, Blake never was your typical, me-first, narrow-focused athlete.
He wasn't shipped off to a tennis academy as a kid, forever in the me-first bubble. Only 5-foot-3 at age 15, he was good, not great. He stayed at home, played on his high-school tennis team, and accepted a scholarship to Harvard.
His parents, an interracial couple who suffered their fair share of difficulty back in the day, valued education above all else. After two years, with major financial incentive on the table, Blake turned pro.
Being named one of People Magazine's sexiest men in 2002 didn't change him a bit, because inside, he still felt like the undersized kid with scoliosis who spent four years trying to hide the armpit-to-tailbone brace he wore to avoid having a steel rod implanted into his spine.
On that fateful day in Rome, Blake instinctively turned his head as he headed for the post, a reflex that likely saved him from permanent paralysis. As it was, he fractured his C7 vertebrae.
The neck healed. His father Thomas passed away. But his struggles weren't over.
Blake was then hit with an attack of zoster, a nasty virus related to chicken pox, sometimes triggered by stress, that paralyzed the left side of his face, affected his balance and gave him pounding headaches.
It was something that might go away in a few months, or years, or never, an even bigger threat than the fractured vertebrae.
What it all did was put life in clear perspective.
"I realized how cavalier I had been about my career the first few years on tour and how much harder I could have worked then," he wrote. "I decided I'd work harder than I ever had before."
That's when the fairy tale kicks in. By the end of 2005, Blake had risen to a career-high No. 23. In March 2006, he cracked the Top 10. Entering the U.S. Open last year, he had jumped to No. 5. Blake won five tournaments in 2006, and reached the final of the prestigious year-end championships.
What's striking about Blake's story is that he shows it's possible to succeed in sports and still have a fairly normal life.
Look up into the box when most top players play and you'll see a parent, a coach and perhaps an agent.
Blake has huge support - just look for the big group of friends, called the J-Block, wearing blue T-shirts in the stands at the coming U.S. Open.
There can often be more than 100 of them, hoarding vacation days or sneaking out of work to support him.
Clearly, his athletic success never got in the way of what was important. He credits his family, and all those friends, for helping him get through it all.
"When I was laid up in that hospital room in Rome, I received a note from exactly one player from the tournament that was in town. One," Blake writes. "Contrast that with all the friends who came to visit me daily, for months, when I was home sick with zoster."
The book wraps up at the end of 2006. It would be poetic if that were just the beginning. But, for some reason, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The 2007 season has been a disappointment, with Blake snapping sarcastically at people who say he's in a slump, and perhaps too determined to prove them wrong.
Maybe the adrenaline and pure determination are giving way to the harsh realities of daily life on the tennis tour, showing how it's one thing to get there, another to stay there.
Blake has dropped from No. 4 in January to his current No. 10, although he can make up some ground during the summer hard-court circuit, including the Rogers Cup here in two weeks.
If you're not a huge tennis fan, but plan on attending the tournament, you'll already have one good guy to root for.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007