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Fighting his way back

Tennis pro James Blake really got slammed by life in 2004. In a memoir, which is climbing lists, he maps out his power return.

July 24, 2007|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

LAST week in Los Angeles was almost perfect for James Blake. Yes, he lost in the finals of the Countrywide Classic at UCLA, but on the plus side, the 27-year-old professional tennis player, currently ranked No. 10 in the world, saw his new memoir, "Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life," hit the bestseller lists. The book recounts his comeback from a nightmare episode in 2004 when, in despairing succession, Blake broke his neck in a freak accident while practicing in Rome, lost his father to cancer, and was struck by a debilitating virus that threatened his career.

"This is the story on my relationship with life, and how I got through those dark days, arriving on the other side with a new understanding, and new approach to everything I do," he writes in a self-revealing tone that has become his post-traumatic trademark. Blake said he sat down at the computer and did much of the writing, then worked with coauthor Andrew Friedman to polish the manuscript.

The result is a rarity among sports autobiographies: an emotionally forthcoming page-turner. Then again, Blake is a rare pro athlete: a recovering East Coast neurotic in a suntanned, narcissistic profession that has a low tolerance for psychological stumbles. Unlike John McEnroe, an equally neurotic New York-bred player who dominated tennis as a rage-junkie in the 1980s, Blake has turned his struggles into the athletic equivalent of psychotherapy, amply evidenced in the book. While McEnroe, decades after retiring, has turned his torment into a profitable shtick, Blake has achieved a productive, courtly equilibrium -- a kind of self-effacing selfishness -- that has become a competitive asset. "When I'm at a tournament, I'm selfish," he said, "But I don't want it to become a habit."

To look at Blake, the best male tennis player of African American heritage since Arthur Ashe, you wouldn't know that he'd been through such a personal hell. His general appearance is luminous. Off court at the tournament, he wore stylishly shredded jeans, a snug Nike shirt (the Empire of Swoosh has clothed Blake since he turned pro in 1999) and black low-cut Converse Chuck Taylors. His shaved head was capped by the logo of the New York Mets, the Yonkers native's favorite team. The eyes were bright, the voice confident and unwavering, the smile glowing and effortless.

Blake is, to put it mildly, an impressive individual, even if he describes himself as a "dumb jock college dropout." Of course, the college he dropped out of was Harvard, and he did so to begin collecting serious prize money and lucrative endorsements.

For a time in 2004, it looked as if that was all going to be taken away. The broken neck had healed, but that injury and the death of his father, combined with a nagging sense that he wasn't living up to his tennis expectations, led to a case of zoster, an ailment brought on by the virus that causes shingles and chicken pox.

"There was never any guarantee that he would recover," said his older brother, Thomas, also a pro player. Generally feared on the ATP Tour for his lethal forehand and blazing speed, the stressed-out, zoster-afflicted Blake was dizzy, disoriented and barely capable of rallying with his longtime coach, Brian Barker, much less facing down Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Before zoster struck, Blake had been a model and was named People's "Sexiest Male Athlete" in 2002. Now, his face sagged on the left side and his vision was iffy.

He had plenty of reasons to freak out, but instead he decided to embrace his Job-like physical ordeal. "I started to believe that everything happens for a reason," he said. Separating himself from the "traveling neverland" of pro tennis, he found refuge in his friends and family.

Blake said the impetus for writing the book began during his illness, when he was considering, as he put it, "other possibilities."

Originally, he envisioned a children's book, but as he recovered, publishers began to show an interest in the story of his tribulations. Assisted by a book agent at International Creative Management, he connected with HarperCollins, which took on the project. In the book he visited unfamiliar territory for notoriously self-absorbed professional athletes: his emotional landscape. "I tend to internalize a lot of things," he said. "It's new for me to have my emotions out there, but it's also been very therapeutic."

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