When considering tennis star James Blake’s life in 2004, it’s easy to recall a scene from the film Young Frankenstein. Igor and Dr. Frankenstein are exhuming a body from a muddy graveyard at night. Both men are covered in dirt and perspiration. “It could be worse,” offers a strangely-upbeat Igor, played by Marty Feldman. “It could be raining.”
A steady downpour was about the only thing missing from Blake’s life that year — otherwise, things couldn’t have gone any worse. In May he smashed headfirst into a net post in Rome while practicing for a tournament. He was sidelined for two months with a cracked vertebra. A couple months later, he watched his father, Thomas, die of stomach cancer. Then, shortly after the funeral, Blake awoke one morning with a severe case of shingles that paralyzed half his face. It wasn’t until he began practicing again that Blake realized the illness had also affected his balance and coordination.
Though only 24, Blake was forced to deal with a sobering reality: his tennis career might be over. During his four months away from the game, he had become very introspective — not surprising for someone who attended Harvard for two years before turning professional. Until he was able to hit balls again, he focused on the mental aspect of his training. During past matches, he had often gotten down on himself after poorly-played points. Now, he decided to take a new approach: he would become his own fiercest cheerleader. Instead of dwelling on his last bad shot, he would prepare for his next good one.
This wasn’t the first time Blake had been driven from the court by disability. As a boy, he’d been diagnosed with scoliosis — he had to wear an awkward back brace for 18 hours a day. But he’d battled through it. And although shingles had caused his ranking to plummet, he was convinced that he’d survive this awful year, too.
Blake’s time away from tennis helped him develop a new appreciation for the game. When he returned to the court, in early 2005, he began working on his deficiencies. He wore out practice partners by slugging hundreds of backhands — long considered his weakest shot. That September, he reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinals at the U.S. Open by defeating number-two-ranked Rafael Nadal. A year later, he won five tournaments and finished the season as the world’s fourth-ranked player. TV commentator and former tennis star Jim Courier has called Blake the new face of American tennis.
If so, American tennis is in good hands. Blake’s even doing his part to bring his sport to a wider audience: Not long ago he shared a table with TV and movie stars on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker.
Now 28, Blake is preparing for another deep run at the U.S. Open. He would be the first to admit that he owes his success, in part, to his medical leave. It gave him perspective — forcing him to improve weaknesses he may have otherwise ignored. A rainbow after a storm.