Setting Sights On 2005,
Blake Returns To Court For Charity
By Richard Pagliaro
Intently eyeing the ball
leaving the left hand of the Grand Slam champion as he launches into
his service motion, James Blake is oblivious to the woman snapping his
photo, the acrobatic yellow leaf using a gust of wind as an aerial trampoline
to perform flying flips behind his back, and the quickly forming footprints
left in the clay by former No. 1 Mats Wilander approaching the net behind
"Sorry about that," a sheepish Blake with a smile. "I had to do it once."
After a season plagued by pain, personal tragedy, injury and illness, Blake's excitement in striking his favorite shot is understandable.
"It's great being back out there. I think that's really going to help me for next year just the fact that I'm so eager to play," Blake said in a court-side interview today.
The simple act of seeing the ball off an opponent's racquet and tracking it until it strikes his own strings is an achievement for the Yonkers native, whose sense of sight, taste and hearing have been diminished during his bout with a virus in recent weeks. The 24-year-old Blake has been hampered by a condition called Zoster. Commonly characterized as shingles, the condition has left Blake feeling weak, while causing partial, temporary paralysis on one side of his face and affected his vision, hearing and sense of taste.
Sensory deprivation may actually be beneficial if you miss a shot while partnering the vocal McEnroe, who yells "No!" at one point during the pro-am to his female partner when she nets a high volley off a shot that was destined for a date with the back fence.
"No means don't hit it, let it go," McEnroe explains. "That ball was going to put a hole in the fence."
McEnroe and Blake, who have practiced together in the past, bring a fire and nice partnership to the court and when they close out the doubles victory over Wilander and partner. McEnroe a master of misdirection who hits the shot of the match by looking to the ad side of the court like a quarterback looking off a defender, before hitting a deceptively slick, half-volley winner to the deuce side celebrates with a good natured chant of "USA! USA!"
The players conducted a clinic, pro-am and exhibition doubles match on the har-tru courts as part of the sixth annual Mats Wilander Tennis & Golf Challenge at the Westchester Country Club in Harrison.
Proceeds from the event benefit the Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Association of America, Inc. (DebRA), a voluntary, non-profit organization dedicated to finding a cure for Epidermolysis Bullosa. Wilander's seven-year-old son Erik, suffers from a mild form of the skin disease, Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) which affects approximately two out of every 100,000 people in the United States. EB is a rare genetic disease characterized by the presence of extremely fragile skin and recurrent blisters, resulting from minor mechanical friction or trauma. Many people get blisters on their hands and feet from time to time following friction, friction that comes from the continued rubbing of skin against a hard object or surface. People with EB, however, get blisters much more easily and in much greater numbers. Severe EB wounds resemble serious burns but EB injuries keep recurring.
Wilander, who lived in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut for several years before moving to Idaho, and his wife Sonya have supported DebRA for more than six years. Symptoms of EB were visible on Erik when he was a baby, but it took several visits to different doctors before his condition was correctly diagnosed.
"Erik had blisters on the back of his head from sleeping and we went from one doctor to another, but no one really knew anything about it," Wilander said. "Finally, one doctor thought it could be EB. We found out about DebRA and we realized he had a mild form of EB and that there are much worse cases. It's a great organization and we've tried to help out as much as we can."
McEnroe and Blake are among Wilander's friends who supplied support by appearing at the charity event today.
A season that began with such promise as Blake reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, falling to eventual finalist Marat Safin, before making quarterfinal appearances at Scottsdale, Indian Wells and Houston has come to a painful, premature conclusion.
Earlier this year, Blake's father, Thomas Blake, passed away. Blake's parents, Thomas and Betty, introduced both James and his older brother Thomas to tennis and have been a constant source of support to their sons at matches throughout their careers.
The former Harvard all-American, who moved from Yonkers to Fairfield, Connecticut when he was eight-years-old, has his tennis roots in New York. Blake learned to play tennis at the Harlem Tennis Center and accompanied his family to Flushing Meadows for their annual trips to the U.S. Open, which he has often called his favorite tournament.
In May, Blake sustained the most serious injury of his career when he suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck during an accident on court. Pursuing a drop shot in a May practice session with Robby Ginepri on the red clay of Rome, Blake burst forward full speed when his foot caught on the clay and he slammed head first into the net post with such force his neck snapped back before his body crumpled to the court.
"Sitting in that hospital for four hours without getting a definitive answer was pretty scary. And the first time they did try to move me, to get me to sit up and I couldnt do it because there was way too much pain, at that point I was even more scared," Blake said in an interview a month after his accident. "Then it was X-ray after X-ray after X-ray which was pretty uncomfortable and then all I could think of for the next day or so was I still couldnt really move at all I couldnt really shower I had clay all over me and I was thinking that I read Dennis Byrds book (the New York Jets defensive lineman who broke his neck after a collision on field) not too long ago, Rise and Walk, about how he was in his uniform for about two days before they finally cut it off him and let him take a bath or something. It helped me to not feel sorry for myself because I knew it could have been a lot worse."
The injury Blake sustained as a result of the collision sidelined him for two months. He returned to the ATP Tour in July at the Campbells Hall of Fame Tennis Championships at the the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport and reached the second round, falling to Alex Bogomolov, Jr., 6-3, 6-1. Slowed by the virus, Blake suffered a straight sets loss to Adrian Garcia in the opening round of the Legg Mason in Washington, D.C. site of his first career tournament title as the injuries and illness have limited Blake to six matches in the past six months. He suffered a straight-sets loss to Vince Spadea in Delray Beach last month before pulling the plug on the season, on the advice of his doctors, to recover and train for the 2005 season.
In a season of loss, Blake believes he has gained something vital a sense of perspective.
"It's been a year to forget so far, but it's going to hopefully give me some perspective," Blake said. "I'm just happy to be on the court, and I really want to take advantage of being on the court, of being able to practice. I just want to take advantage of every opportunity I have."
Prior to heading out to the golf course to participate in the pro-am, Blake took time out for this interview in which he discussess his health and the 2005 season.
Tennis Week: You were moving well and looked good out there. Obviously, it's not the same as the ATP Tour, but how are you feeling physically right now?
James Blake: Getting better. I'm moving all right. My legs are healthy and hopefully they're not going anyway. I've been affected by a virus that's affecting my eye sight, so I've been struggling with that, but I'm getting better. The doctor said it's going to be a full recovery, it's just going to be hopefully another month or two. So the rest of this year is done for me and now I'm just working on getting ready for a really good 2005, hopefully.
Tennis Week: What exactly is the virus?
James Blake: It's called Zoster. It's similar to shingles. It attacks the nerve in my face, so it paralyzes one side of my face and also affects my hearing and taste and everything kind of in my ear.
Tennis Week: Was that a result of your collision with the net post or is it totally unrelated?
James Blake: It's totally unrelated. It's actually stress-related, they (doctors) said. It's a virus that attacks you a lot of times when you're under a lot of stress.
Tennis Week: I read on your web site that you've been doing a lot of off-court training during your time away from tennis to stay in shape. What exactly have you been doing to try to stay in tennis shape?
James Blake: Originally, it was just a lot of biking. When my neck was hurt, all I could really do was bike. So I was doing that and then recently now that my legs are physically fine, I've been running, jumping rope and doing a lot of on-court stuff. I've been doing sprints, agility stuff and lifting. So I can still do that stuff, but it's just on the court that I'm a little bit behind.
Tennis Week: You were in Charlotte on the bench supporting your friends and teammates during the U.S. victory over Belarus in Davis Cup. You've been a Davis Cup player throughout your career, what do you see happening in the final against Spain and do you have any plans to go to Seville to support the team as you did in Charlotte?
James Blake: Well, it's going to be a little bit further away this time because it's in Spain (laughs). But I expect them to put on a great show. This will be the first time all year they will be the underdog going against Moya and Ferrero on clay is pretty tough. But Andy has been starting to play better on clay, I think he's taking it really seriously and I think he's going to train hard on clay for a while to get ready for that. When he's serving well, I don't care what surface it is, he can beat anyone in the world. I'm looking forward to Andy playing really well and the Bryans are the best doubles team in the world, I think. In Davis Cup competition they have yet to lose and I don't see them losing to Spain even over there. I think that the only thing that might get to them is the crowd because they've been home for the last few Davis Cup ties this year. But I definitely like their chances to go over there and bring home the title.
Tennis Week: You've had good results in Australia in the past, winning the Hopman Cup with Serena and Lindsay Davenport and reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open in each of the last two years. What is your schedule for Australia in January and what is your goal?
James Blake: I'm hoping to play Hopman Cup and the Australian again.
Tennis Week: Will you play with Serena again?
James Blake: I think I'm going to play with Lindsay again. Basically, my goal for next year is just to stay healthy. I mean after this year, I'm going to be so happy just to be on the court playing. I'm really going to enjoy myself and I think it's going to give me a better perspective on the game. I really believe I'm going to end up playing better, but the main thing I want to be is on the court and healthy and just giving myself the opportunity out there. That's what I'm looking forward to.
Tennis Week: You strike me as a positive person. How do you remain positive and optimistic particularly after all you've been through personally and professionally this year?
James Blake: Well, for one I've got a great coach, great family and great people around me. So I get to spend time with my friends. I'm in a bad situation with this virus, but all I can do is try to make the best of it. So I'm going to try to help out with things like this event for Mats, who has always helped me, and just have a good time enjoying my friends. Because you really don't get that opportunity playing tennis all the time, that's the one thing you miss out on Tour is you don't get to see the people you grew up with and your family as much as you'd like. So I'm trying to take this opportunity to catch up on those kinds of things. Then I'll get back out there, back to work, back to what I love doing, which is playing tennis and being out there competing.
Tennis Week: After being unable to play for so long due to your injury and illness when you get out there today for an event like this, even though it's very casual, is it still a lot of fun just to hit the ball around with McEnroe and Wilander and be back out there?
James Blake: Yeah, it's great being back out there. I think that's really going to help me for next year just the fact that I'm so eager to play.
Tennis Week: Yeah, you look eager and enthusiastic out there.
James Blake: Yeah, absolutely. I really want to get out there and play, which I think will help me. Honestly, it's tough to watch. Getting out here playing is what's fun. Playing and practicing with my coach when I know I'm about 80 percent, I've had to learn to kind of deal with the frustration of not being 100 percent, which for an athlete who's used to being 100 percent, that's tough. It's been fun. I'm definitely going to be eager to be out there competing next year. Watching these last three Grand Slams has been really tough.
Tennis Week: Last question, as a long-suffering Mets fan, who would you hire as the new manager if you could hire anyone?
James Blake: I think Art Howe had a rough run there (smiles), a little bit of bad luck. I don't know who's out there and we'll see in the next couple of weeks who's available and if anyone else gets fired. I'm definitely looking forward to a better year.
Tennis Week: Do you still follow the playoffs even though the Mets are not in it?
James Blake: Yeah, I do.
My brother's a huge Yankees fan and some of my best friends are huge
Red Sox fans so I hear it from both ends. I'm going to be watching the
series starting tonight. We'll see what happens.