James Blake has not had a good year on the tennis courts.
It started promising enough, when he pushed last year’s US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro to five sets in the second round of the Australian Open, but since then he has compiled a record of 11-14 for 2010, having been forced to spend three months recovering from a knee injury this spring. He is currently ranked No. 111.
Off the court, however, there have been positive developments, as Blake and Fila launched the Thomas Reynolds Collection, named for Blake’s late father.
More recently, it was announced that Blake would be honored on the opening night of the US Open, along with Martina Navratilova and others who “dream, succeed and inspire.”
Blake will be honored for having become a pro tennis player despite his childhood struggles with scoliosis, and for later reaching the top 10 despite the setbacks of 2004, the year he severely injured his neck, developed shingles, and lost his father due to stomach cancer.
The latest challenge in Blake’s life, his knee injury and damage it has done to his play, prompted him to speculate about retirement at Wimbledon this year. Earlier this month, however, he told Bleacher Report that his knee has recovered and that he looks forward to continuing play.
“I really don’t set goals like ranking-wise, or tournaments or wins or anything like that. I just try to continue getting better,” he said.
The word is out that you’re going to be honored on the first night of the US Open by the USTA along with, among others, Martina Navratilova, so congratulations.
So how does it feel to receive this honor?
Like you said, it’s an honor. I just heard about it about a month ago and I’m just kind of taken aback.
I’ve seen a lot of the opening day ceremonies, when they named it the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, and when Arthur Ashe Stadium was named, and all the great nominees and honorees that have come forward in those opening night ceremonies, and really I never thought I’d be one of them.
It’s something that took me by surprise and I’m definitely very honored.
So what can you tell us about the Thomas Reynolds Collection at Fila?
I was given the opportunity by Fila to do my own line, and I wanted to do something that meant a lot more to me than just putting my name on something.
Therefore I wanted to do this as a tribute to my father, who gave me this opportunity and made me the person I’ve become today.
I was always proud of him, and I wanted to make it known that he was never forgotten, that he was always with me.
Since it’s named after your father, what can you tell us about the influence he had on you as a player and as a person?
As a person, he really taught me how to be a man, and was someone that there isn’t as much of in today’s world, someone that practices what they preach.
He always preached hard work, work ethic and doing the right thing, and he was the perfect example of it. He worked as hard as he possibly could.
Even when he was sick, he was trying his best to go to work and do everything he could. He really cared about others.
He was the last person to ask for help, or for anyone to lend a hand to him, but he was always the first to lend a hand anytime anyone else was in trouble.
I was amazed at how many people were touched by him, and he really just had a special talent for making other lives easier.
You started playing professionally at the beginning of the last decade, at the end of the Sampras and Agassi era. What have been the biggest changes in the men’s game since you started?
It just continues to improve. That’s why I believe it’s somewhat unfair to compare generations because the game keeps getting better.
At the end of that era, the Sampras and Agassi era, Andy Roddick was coming up, and got to No. 1 in the world in 2003, and has since then improved as a player.
I played him in those times and I’ve played him more recently and he’s improved as a player, though he’s ranked just inside the top 10 as opposed to being ranked No. 1 in 2003.
And I think that’s an indicator that the game continues to improve at just an amazing rate. You can’t stay at the same level and expect to stay at the same ranking. You’re going to get worse if you don’t improve pretty quickly.
The training has gotten better, the rackets, the strings and all that technology continues to get better. I think the play just keeps getting better and better.
It’s more physical, which is why you’re also probably seeing more injuries, because the guys, first of all, they’re forced to work harder, and the long schedule makes it so that, as physical as all these matches are, their bodies are starting to break down.
The times you experienced in 2004 with injuries and other problems are well known. When you were unable to play and had suffered so much personally, what were your goals? Were you just hoping to play again?
Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to. When I was lying on the ground not sure how bad my neck and back injury was, I didn’t know if I’d be playing again, and once they assured me that I’d be okay, that I’d make a full recovery, then I got sick.
Again, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever to play again. They really didn’t know how long it was going to take for my body to heal.
They said it could be up to two or three or even four years, and that’s pretty much a life sentence when it comes to tennis years, so I really didn’t know, and it gave me time to sort of step back and decide if I could be happy without tennis in my life, and find out what else was important to me, and I’m lucky I’ve had that opportunity in the middle of my career and was still able to come back and have sort of a nice second career.
And I’ve been fortunate to have even more success since I came from those injuries than before. I didn’t come back with the expectation of having that much success, I just came back really enjoying the game and really enjoying every part of it knowing that it could end at any time and I could be back to not having tennis in my life.
I was fortunate to get that realization at a young age even though it came through some very unfortunate situations.
It was only about a year after that that you beat Rafael Nadal at the US Open and played that epic with Andre Agassi. How did it feel to have come so far so fast?
(Laughs) It was interesting, because it didn’t seem so fast at the time. I really struggled for the first four or five months of the year, until maybe around the French Open, when I started playing a little better, and even then, when I knew I was playing better it still didn’t translate to too many wins quite yet.
And then it started sort of snowballing in the summer, when I think I made the finals in D.C., I won the Pilot Pen in New Haven, and then came to the Open with just a ton of confidence, and before I knew it I was right back into that competitive mindset, that I wanted to win every single match, and I remember after I lost that match with Andre I was pretty upset and thought I could’ve won.
I definitely could have with just a point here or there, and I was sitting there talking to my friends about how badly I wanted to win, and a couple of them kind of reminded me that it was still a pretty great match and I played my best and did what I could, and sort of reminded me there for a minute that I had come pretty far and I still had plenty more good things to come in my career.
It was just a year after that, at the end of 2006, that your ranking reached No. 4 in the world. What do you think is the difference between then and now with your game?
I don’t think there’s that much of a difference. I think I’ve continued to try and improve. I’ve had some injuries since then, but I think the biggest thing is just the confidence.
At that time, I was playing just match after match, I just felt like my game was what needed to be played and I didn’t need to worry about what anyone else was doing, and could rely on the game that I was confident in on big points.
At particular moments, break points, set points, anytime I thought I needed it, I was just playing my game.
Right now, since I haven’t played nearly as many matches lately, because of my knee injury, and just not having so much success, it makes it tougher to have that confidence going in each time.
It’s been what I felt in 2005, when I was struggling for quite a few months at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t played so many matches, and all it took was one good tournament, and I made the finals of D.C., and really things just started rolling and I kind of never looked back.
What were your goals when this season started?
I really don’t set goals like ranking-wise, or tournaments or wins or anything like that. I just try to continue getting better, and doing everything I can to prepare for each situation as well as I can, and this year I feel that I’ve done that.
I’ve had that knee injury that kept me out for two and a half, three months, and I did as much rehab as I could, I did everything I could to get back as quickly as possible.
I actually think I came back a little too soon trying to play on the grass and my knee was still bothering me. And now it feels good so I’m doing everything I can in preparation for each tournament.
I’m really excited to be able to play these tournaments healthy and it’s just hopefully going to be a little more success coming up here.
Those are the sort of things that are out of my control, the amount of success, I’m just trying to be prepared, for if I am successful, if I start doing well, then I’m in good enough shape to keep going, and I’m prepared mentally and physically for that ride.
The latest we’ve heard from you is that you’re no longer contemplating drawing your career to a close. Does that mean your knee is feeling fully recovered?
It is, and that’s exciting to me. I made some statements at Wimbledon, where I was just very frustrated with my knee, with how it wasn’t responding to all the treatment we’d been doing.
Now it’s feeling great and I couldn’t be happier about that, and I’m just excited to getting back to playing better tennis and being able to train 100 percent the way I used to and the way that’s gotten me success in my career.