August 28, 2005
After the rain subsided, Blake and his practice partner that afternoon, Robby Ginepri, a friend and fellow American, returned to the court. Ginepri, who had recently entered the Top 25 himself, soon had a set point. Trying an unlikely tactic, given Blake's speed, Ginepri hit a drop shot. (In Davis Cup practice sessions, Blake's teammates had often enjoyed playing a kind of carnival game: who can drop-shot James?) Blake ran hard. He got to the ball, but as he went to slide on the damp red clay, his foot caught. Blake catapulted forward, slamming headfirst into the metal net post.
''When he hit, it made such a loud sound, his head hitting the pole,'' said Blake's coach, Brian Barker, who was standing beside the post, monitoring practice. ''It was the scariest feeling to see that happen. He hit and he just lay right down there.'' Indeed, the impact was so violent that Blake's racket, which struck the post as well, looked, when I saw it a year later, as if a sharp-toothed animal had bitten into it just below the strings.
Barker, who started coaching Blake when he was 11 -- and an unlikely prospect at about 5 feet 85 pounds -- immediately ran to find an ambulance. By the time he returned, Ginepri and a friend of his, who had been watching the practice, had carefully rolled Blake onto his back. They had put towels over him and under him to try to keep him warm.
''Can you move your toes?'' Barker asked Blake. ''Can you move at all?''
The response was yes, one of the few bright spots for Barker and Blake over the next three days. The ambulance -- following Italian protocol, apparently -- took Blake to a public hospital. With neither Blake nor Barker able to speak Italian, doctors began sending Blake from X-ray room to X-ray room, some of them saying, from what Blake could understand, that the injury would take three weeks to heal, some of them saying six months. Only one thing was clear: Blake had broken his neck.
Now, less than 16 months later, Blake will walk down a tunnel beneath one of the stadiums at the U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center in Queens sometime this week and emerge onto a tennis court before thousands of fans. Such a walk -- with its progression from private to public, from invisibility to hypervisibility -- is nothing new to Blake, of course. He has done it at the U.S. Open alone three times, and he has made similar entrances at tournaments all over the world. But this year, the moment will be something special. In little more than two months last year, Blake not only broke his neck; he also lost his father to stomach cancer and came down with zoster, a virus that paralyzed half of his face. ''People often get zoster after extreme emotional and physical stress,'' Dr. David Altchek, a former Davis Cup physician, told me. ''It's like God's final slap in the face.''
lake first caught the public eye one afternoon in 2001 on the Louis Armstrong Stadium court at the U.S. Open. It had been two years since he left Harvard as a sophomore -- he had been the No. 1 college player in the country, and his collegiate coach, Dave Fish, says that to try to keep Blake in school ''would have been like trying to staple a leaf back to a tree.'' But despite Blake's considerable talent -- namely his speed, and what Patrick McEnroe, the captain of the United States Davis Cup team, now calls a Mach 10 forehand -- Blake, ranked No. 95 in the world, was the decided underdog that day to the Australian star Lleyton Hewitt, the tournament's No. 4 seed. In a match that is now lore among tennis fans, with the players tied at one set each and the momentum turning surprisingly in Blake's favor in the third, Hewitt was called for a foot fault. At the changeover, Hewitt approached the chair umpire and, as courtside microphones captured every word, he said, ''Look at him,'' pointing at the linesman, who was African-American. ''And look at him,'' he said, pointing at Blake, whose father was African-American (his mother is white and English). ''You tell me what the similarity is.'' The implication, that Blake was being shown favoritism because he was black, was clear.
By the time the match was over -- Blake cramped in the fourth set, threw up from the quinine tablet the trainer gave him and lost the match in the fifth -- the fan and media interest in Blake was so great that the United States Tennis Association sent four security guards to escort him from the court back to the locker rooms beneath Arthur Ashe Stadium. Despite requiring an IV immediately after the match and then playing a mixed-doubles match a few hours later, Blake handled the press conference with the same grace he displayed on the court. To question after question, he replied that things happen in the heat of the moment, that he would ask Hewitt about the incident himself. Until then, he would make no judgment.
(The next day, Blake found Hewitt in the locker room. According to what Blake told me this summer, Hewitt apologized repeatedly, averred that he wasn't a racist and did his best to backpedal. ''I told him I'd accept that,'' Blake said. ''If that's the way you feel now, now that you had time to think about it. But if it happens again, you'll understand that I won't be so understanding.'')
The media had found a darling in Blake. With his unusual combination of H's -- Harvard, Harlem (Blake grew up in Fairfield, Conn., but his father took him and his brother to the Harlem Junior Tennis Program every Sunday), handsome and humble, Blake was a story begging to be told. The headline the following day in Newsday said: ''Best of Company; Blake's classy response'' evokes ''spirit of Ashe.'' And with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the top American tennis players, getting older, the U.S.T.A. and others (like Nike, for instance) were hopeful that they had found a new icon.
Later that fall, in a match that had been postponed because of the Sept. 11 attacks, Blake made his debut for the U.S. Davis Cup team, becoming the third African-American to do so (MaliVai Washington and Arthur Ashe were the others). By winning both of his singles matches, he helped lead the United States to a 4-1 victory over India. He won his first A.T.P. tournament the following August in Washington, beating Agassi, among others, and by the U.S. Open the following year, Blake had risen to No. 26 in the world. His profile was rising even faster: in 2002 he signed with IMG Models and was named the year's ''sexiest athlete'' by People magazine.
Now, still in his clay-caked tennis clothes, wearing a neck brace and in a good deal of pain -- he had refused painkillers -- Blake wanted answers. He wanted to return home. Barker, having pulled a cot into Blake's room for two nights and having seen the pain Blake was in (and unable to sleep himself, for worry), found himself torn. The doctors wanted Blake to stay four more days. Uncertain about what to do, both cautious and trusting Blake at the same time, Barker lobbied the doctors for an early release. ''I'm arguing with the doctor, getting him down to Sunday or Monday, and James is like, No, we're out of here now, we're leaving now. I'm thinking, How's he going to ride in a car? He can't walk, he can't stand up, and we're going to get in a car?''
But the next afternoon, with the help of Barker and a wheelchair, Blake boarded a plane to New York. He sat in the first seat, in the first row, and, afraid of having to use the bathroom, did not eat or drink for the entire flight. ''He looked like he was just miserable,'' Barker told me. ''I didn't really say anything to him. I just let him be.''
here was one bright side to Blake's return: he would get to be with his father. Nearly a year earlier, in June 2003, Thomas Blake Sr. found out he had stomach cancer. At the time, he told his family about neither the diagnosis nor the operation he required. He did not want to disrupt his sons at Wimbledon that year. (Blake's older brother, Thomas Jr., was playing in the qualifiers.) So he simply told his wife, Betty, that he was having a minor hernia operation and that she need not tell their sons anything until they had lost. When his wife and then his sons returned from London (James lost in the second round), they found the elder Blake in the hospital. His stomach had been removed and he had been given one to two years to live. Still, he was adamant that his sons keep up their tournament schedules and not come home to visit. (Indeed, Thomas told me that when he drove back between Challenger, or second-tier, tournaments for Father's Day in 2004, his father ''put on a show that he didn't want me to be there, that I would do badly next week.'')
Now, however, Blake was suddenly granted what he would not have had otherwise, time at home. ''The luckiest thing that happened to me was breaking my neck,'' Blake says today. ''And if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't be upset at all about it.''
As for Blake's own recovery, Dr. Gregory Lutz, the head of physiatry at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, told Blake that his neck was broken, his back was not and he would recover fully. ''James's fracture was a piece of the bone that is like a wing on either side of the vertebral body,'' Lutz explained to me. In short, Blake was extremely lucky that he had turned his head before hitting the net post; a straight shot, with its downward pressure on the spinal cord, could have caused paralysis. Instead, given six weeks to heal, Blake could return to the courts. His first thought was that year's Wimbledon. ''I immediately looked at the schedule, and I'm like, That's right at Wimbledon, I'll be back for Wimbledon,'' Blake told me, smiling a bit at his overambitiousness.
Blake's rehabilitation program was fairly straightforward. For two weeks, wearing a neck brace day and night, he was allowed no physical activity. In the succeeding two weeks, Blake rode a stationary bike, 15 or 20 minutes at a time, with low resistance. (Blake told me he often went to the gym twice a day, he was so bored at home watching daytime TV -- ESPN's ''SportsCenter,'' ''The Cosby Show,'' ''Saturday Night Live'' reruns, music videos.) ''I am used to always trying to improve something,'' Blake wrote me in an e-mail message. ''Since I was pretty young that had always been easy to accomplish with working out.'' When Lutz gave Blake the green light to walk on the treadmill, Blake jogged over a mile. ''I called him up,'' Blake says, ''and said, 'You know, that kind of hurt my back.' And he told me, 'I didn't tell you you could run!''' Two weeks later, six weeks after the injury, Blake was able to remove the brace. He was now at no greater risk for spinal-cord injury than he had been before breaking his neck. He called Barker right away. Get a court, he said; we're going to practice.
By July 2, two weeks out of his brace, Blake was preparing to go to Newport, R.I., to play in his first tournament since the injury when his father -- for the first time -- asked James to visit him in the hospital. His father was slipping in and out of consciousness, but during a lucid moment, he told his son, ''You're going up to Newport, you're going to play and do your best.'' Blake demurred, saying that there would be other tournaments in his life. But his father, even then, insisted: both Blake and his brother, who left for Newport the day before, were to play.
Early on July 3, Blake's father died. In accord with his wishes, Thomas played his match that afternoon, victoriously. Blake won a match at Newport as well.
n the days following his father's funeral, Blake didn't know what to do. ''I didn't know if I should be staying at home,'' he says, ''or if I would feel guilty going out on the road, or if I would start to feel better if my mom came out on the road with me.'' He had been having trouble sleeping for some time, and hoping a routine might help, he decided to return to practice. But on the court that day at Fairfield University, things didn't feel right. ''My ear and my head were killing me, and I actually stopped practicing,'' Blake says. Barker, who in 13 years had never known Blake to stop a practice and who can perhaps decode Blake better than anyone, told Blake to go to the hospital.
Blake's family doctor told him he had nothing to worry about -- it was an ear infection, start antibiotics. During each of the next two days, however, Blake's pain increased. At that point, Blake's friend Evan Paushter -- who had just had his tonsils removed and who feared somehow having made his friend sick -- suggested that Blake see his ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Mark Bianchi. Bianchi told Blake to stay on the antibiotics but to increase the dosage. The following morning, almost a week to the day after his father's funeral, Blake woke up in tremendous pain, to find a rash, like chicken pox, covering the left side of his head. Even more frightening, however, was that that side of his face seemed frozen: his eye wouldn't blink; his mouth wouldn't move.
Perhaps out of professional prudence, perhaps out of kindness, Bianchi had given Blake his cellphone number, and when Blake reached him, Bianchi immediately told Blake to meet him at the emergency room of Bridgeport Hospital. Just to be certain that it wasn't a tumor, Bianchi ordered a CAT scan. Those words -- with their evocation of the hospital in Rome and, more painfully, of his father -- were for Blake a kind of double whammy. ''Again, I have no idea what's going on, I'm having the same feeling, I'm just hurting a little more with everything that has gone on,'' Blake told me. And with Barker having accompanied Thomas to a tournament in Indianapolis, this time Blake was alone.
Hooked up to IV's and unable to swallow without tremendous pain -- Blake describes the virus as being more painful than the broken neck -- Blake called his mother and said: ''Mom, I don't want you spending any more time in the hospital. You've spent so much time at the hospital, I feel so bad.'' Blake's mother, of course, made the trip, followed soon by Paushter and other friends.
A few days later, the rash had receded significantly, and Blake was discharged from the hospital. Barker and Blake met with Bianchi, who explained to them that zoster, a virus triggered by stress, had attacked Blake's facial nerve. The nerve had swelled inside its bony canal, and the blood supply had largely been cut off. Whether the nerve was completely dead or just badly damaged, Bianchi couldn't be sure. It was possible, in other words, that Blake's condition would never change, that his face would remain paralyzed.
But Blake hardly remembers hearing that part. ''I'm thinking, O.K., it's just my face,'' he says now. ''Everything else works, I'm going to be able to play. I'll look stupid on the court, but I'll put on a hat, I'll be fine.''
Despite his obstinate hopefulness and the growing pharmacopoeia in his bathroom -- prednisone to reduce the swelling of the nerve, an antiviral to attack the virus, ointment for his ear and drops to lubricate his eye (which remained open even when he slept) -- Blake soon realized he had a serious problem. Water tasted bad. He got dizzy walking across the room. He couldn't hear well out of his left ear. In late July, when Blake and Barker went to see Dr. John Kveton, a neurotologist who teaches at Yale, Kveton made things very clear. Blake would almost certainly get better, but it would take three months, probably longer. And the symptoms, which Blake had hoped were side effects from his medications, were not side effects at all. The facial nerve, as Kveton explained it to me, abuts the hearing and balance nerve. What was required was patience, time for the facial nerve to heal in its canal, millimeter by millimeter. For Blake, the prescription was hard to take.
On Aug. 18, having grown terribly bored with online poker, daytime TV and limited workouts with Barker (Blake was indeed getting less dizzy and making an athlete's adjustments), Blake showed up at the Legg Mason tournament in Washington. His eye still would not blink, and he had to wear sunglasses to protect it from the sun, but he wanted a test to see if he could play that year's U.S. Open. He got his answer. ''It was the worst experience I ever had on a tennis court,'' Blake says. ''I won that tournament before, so the crowd was behind me, but I couldn't see, I couldn't feel like I had any confidence in hitting the ball.''
Stubborn to a fault, Blake tried again about a month later, in Delray Beach, Fla. After somehow beating the local wild card, Blake lost badly to Vincent Spadea in the second round. Spadea, another top American player, spoke with me this summer in Newport and was compassionate about Blake's situation, having played injured himself at Wimbledon this year. ''You know, you're there for a few games, you almost feel like yourself,'' he said. ''And then you have a little ache, and you're like, Gosh, I haven't trained like I usually train, you're missing a big volley on break point, and all of a sudden it breaks open, and you're like, Gosh, I might hurt myself worse, I'm not supposed to be out here, my life is just not going in the right direction, and then it all comes into play.'' Spadea added, with good humor, ''And you're searching for the capsules on the sideline -- whatever they are, either Tylenol, or Zoloft.''
After a final visit to Kveton early last October, Blake finally decided to stop playing for the rest of the year, a wise move by all accounts, including his own. Then, doing what any normal athlete would have done starting that July, he took it easy. He practiced every other day; he played poker with friends three or four nights a week. A bit more comfortable with his appearance, or at least resigned to it, he started going out more. (Much to his amazement, while at a football game last fall, he even met a woman, whom he's now dating. ''Yeah, I can't believe she gave me her number,'' Blake said.) He took trips -- among them, one to Las Vegas with Ginepri and one to Colorado with his brother.
lake has been completely healthy since January. He can blink; he can smile. Before a final tuneup tournament the week preceding the U.S. Open, he had played in 18 A.T.P. tournaments, had a match record of 18 wins and 17 losses and had risen in the rankings to No. 70. As the numbers suggest, his comeback has not been a steady ascent. There have been disappointing early exits -- at Wimbledon, Indianapolis, Newport -- and there have been missed chances, including match points he failed to win against the top-ranked players Sebastien Grosjean (at Queen's Club) and Carlos Moya (at the Nasdaq-100 Open). But Blake did win two Challenger tournaments in the spring, and early this month, he returned to the Legg Mason in Washington -- the site of his worst embarrassment last summer -- and he reached the finals, putting on an impressive show in a loss to Andy Roddick, 7-5, 6-3. Also this month, Blake lost a close match to Roger Federer, the best tennis player in the world right now, in Cincinnati by the score 7-6, 7-5.
When I mentioned his coming return to the Open this week, his walking out of the tunnel onto one of the stadium courts, hometown friends among the thousands who will be cheering for him, he said, ''It's going to be an amazing feeling.'' As for his outlook, Blake recently wrote me: ''I think it may be similar to the first time I was out there and had the confidence to believe in myself that I belonged there. Of course I would love to make it to the second week. . . . ''
When I asked Blake about any lessons he has learned this past year, he was a little more reticent. Apart from saying that he gets less angry after a loss, that he appreciates his good fortune more, he revealed little. He did say that point to point, his thinking is no different: he's no less the perfectionist, no more apt to let a difficult ball go. He admitted that the pressure from the outside now is greater -- at 25, he's midcareer and has yet to step into the Top 20 shoes that so many of his fans and corporate sponsors laid out for him in 2002. Beyond that, Blake would rather answer tennis questions, as he always has, on the court.
During the two tournaments I spent with Blake this year, the Nasdaq-100 and the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, I couldn't help noticing how Blake lighted up every time he ran into a friend, by the practice courts or in the locker room, and had the chance to banter. ''Every time I see him walking in, I know something is coming,'' Taylor Dent, a top American player, told me this summer. ''Whether he's going to start ragging on L.A. or the Lakers or, you know, whatever I'm affiliated with. And if he's not going to dish it out first, then I'm on it.''
Blake's style of play echoes his conversational style: he is an all-court player with tremendous speed, who will rally from the baseline, running around his backhand, his weakness, to smash a forehand at any opening. But rarely will he dominate a rally, setting it up with three or four shots -- as the Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe, has told me he would like to see Blake do more.
Yet while he is very social, Blake is also very private, both traits making the eight months last year that he was off the tour particularly difficult for him. Blake said that his father always told him that ''if there's a problem, you're going to fix it, you're not going to complain about it, you're not going to make anyone else a part of your problem.'' Then he added, ''I think that's what I do, and I don't know if that's ever going to change.''
Howard Axelrod teaches writing at the University of Arizona. This is his first article for the magazine.
Copyright 2005 The New
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