How James Blake keeps his focus to make a racket on the international tennis stage.
Interview by: Josh Staph
Fresh off his 2005 ATP Pilot Pen Tournament title and on the eve of his U.S. Open quarter-final battle with Andre Agassi, American tennis star James Blake talked to STACK about his mental approach to the game. Much can be learned from a man who overcame childhood scoliosis, severe injury and illness to position himself for another run at the top of the tennis world.
STACK: How do you prepare yourself for a match?
BLAKE: I don’t have a specific pre-match meal, but I make sure to eat plenty of carbohydrates on the day of a match. That is something that needs to be well supplied when you have a long match in the heat ahead of you. So that means a lot of bagels, toast, pasta and things like that during the day. The night before, I always have some protein. Since I don’t eat red meat, I usually have some chicken or turkey with dinner.
I have some superstitions, but they pretty much change week to week. Whatever I do at the beginning of the week, I have to continue to do if I am winning. Before my matches I tend to listen to a mixture of music. I listen to some rap to get fired up closer to the match, but if I’m listening to music awhile before I play, it’s usually slower music just to keep me relaxed.
STACK: Do you get fired up to play, or do you try to calm yourself down?
BLAKE: I try and relax early in the day. The only time I really need to get fired up is just a few minutes before I play. Tennis isn’t a sport like boxing, where you need to come out completely fired up from the second you walk out there. There is a five-minute warm-up before you start playing out there anyway. It’s usually a long match, and you need to be able to handle the ups and downs throughout the course of it.
STACK: From the locker room to taking the court for warm-ups to the first serve, what goes through your head? Does it change depending on whom you’re playing?
BLAKE: Once I’m ready to take the court, I’ve got my game plan set and I’m ready to go. The only thing going through my head as I get out there for warm-up is to execute that plan effectively.
STACK: Once the match begins, how do you stay focused after a difficult point, game or set? Is it tough to put it behind you?
BLAKE: Recovering from a bad point, game or set is something that I’ve gotten better at as I’ve gotten older. There are so many ups and downs in any given match that it is too difficult to worry about every single mistake; it just wastes energy. You just have to have a short memory for all of the bad things that happen so that you can move on without it affecting future points.
STACK: How has your mental outlook and approach changed from when you were young, in high school, college and then once you got on tour?
BLAKE: I think now my mental outlook has become clearer. As I was coming up, I had a lot of options and wasn’t always sure what the best plan was. I think I thought too much about what my opponent was doing and how I needed to adjust to his game. Now I try to make him adjust to my game and worry only about playing the way I feel is effective.
STACK: How did your injury, illness and time away last year affect the way you approach the game this year?
BLAKE: The injury and illness gave me a renewed hunger for competition and victories. It also gave me a sense of vulnerability, knowing that this career is not going to last forever. I now feel lucky to be able to be on the court and to enjoy being healthy. So now I approach the game with a sense of my career being finite, and I would like to do my best while I have the ability. I take nothing for granted.
STACK: Do you have any advice about mental focus for athletes?
BLAKE: My first advice for younger athletes is enjoy yourself. Then make sure you don’t have too many outside distractions when you are playing your matches. It is unnecessary to think about everything else going on or the people in the stands. Just concentrate on the point at hand and everything else will take care of itself.