By Stephen Tignor
“Make some noise for James Blake!”
These rousing words were bellowed by the announcer on center court at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March. It was 7 P.M. on a comfortably cool evening in the California desert, but the stands were virtually empty as Blake, a former No. 1-ranked American player and runner-up to Roger Federer at this event in 2006, trudged out with his head down to play a first-round match against Australian Chris Guccione. Despite the exhortation, there was very little noise being made. It was a stark contrast to those glory days, when there was no more raucous rooting section at the US Open than Blake’s famously loud J-Block.
But that’s how it’s been for Blake for the last two years. He’s eased into an injury-plagued third decade of his life and out of the spotlight that he had once commanded, as both a potent player and a likeable personality, for half a decade. Blake, ranked No. 154 at the time, needed a wild card to play at Indian Wells; three weeks later he found himself hunting for matches at a USTA Pro Circuit Challenger event in Tallahassee, Fla.
“It’s been frustrating,” Blake said from Tallahassee, “because with the injuries I haven’t been able to play enough and get any momentum.” Blake has struggled with a knee problem for the last year and only played 32 matches in all of 2010.
“That’s tough for me,” he added, “because I always liked to work hard, put in four hours on the court and then go to the gym. Now I can’t do that. I can’t just go out and work hard, because I have to think about my body. I have to work smart.”
Blake is 31. His last title came in 2007. He’s been on tour for 12 years. He hasn’t won more than two matches in a row since June 2009. What’s left for him now? Why, with his ranking and his profile so low, and with the risk of another injury seemingly around every corner, does he keep going? Why, while his peers at the top of the sport, face off in a Masters tournament in Monte Carlo, does Blake get on a plane after losing a dispiriting straight-setter in the second round in Houston and head right for the next Challenger?
Last year at Wimbledon, Blake was seriously considering calling it a career due to persistent knee pain. “The knee is not great,” he said at the All England Club last June. “If it doesn’t get better soon, I’m not sure how much longer I want to play in pain.”
So what makes him keep playing through the pain? The reason is simple, according to Blake.
“I still love competing,” he says. “I’ve always loved putting it on the line, and that hasn’t changed. Wherever I play, I always enjoy that part of the sport. That’s what keeps me going.”
Blake says that the main thing he’s missing from his glory years isn’t any particular shot, or any amount of self-confidence. It’s something more basic.
“It’s all about my feet, my movement,” he says. “It’s not execution. In the past, I’ve felt like if I was moving my feet well, I was going to play well, and I had a chance against anyone. That’s been a huge part of my game. With injuries and lack of work, it’s been tough to get my feet going the way they need to.”
Still, Blake refuses to look too far ahead, or dwell on the inevitable. “I don’t have any timeline or finish line,” he says. “I’ve never really set goals, like I need to get to this ranking or win that tournament. My goal has always been to improve, and that’s still the goal. That’s the goal more than ever. I know after 2004 that anything can happen, good and bad, and you never know what might come along.”
That year, 2004, was Blake’s famous season of disaster. He broke his neck after flying into a net post in Rome. His father, Thomas Sr., passed away from cancer. And then he contracted the disease, zoster, which sidelined him further. The next year, though, Blake rose out of those ashes to reach the quarters of the US Open, where he led Andre Agassi two sets to love before losing in a five-set, late-night classic. If Blake is ever frustrated now, he can think back to those days and realize that his career has been better than most people expected.
“I like to think I overachieved,” Blake says. “I never really thought I’d be a pro, or then be in the Top 10. So whatever happens now, I feel like I’ve had a great career.”
This spring, Blake looked back at that career, what he’s most proud of and what he would change. “The one thing I’m most proud of is Davis Cup [Blake was a member of the U.S. team that won in 2007]. . . . I’m so proud of that team and how much fun we had and how I think we did it the right way.
“The only thing I could possibly say I’d want to change was—when I was younger—to stop listening to other people. There were a lot of other coaches that see a young player and want to throw in their two cents and I actually listened to some of that. That’s what got me off track at times.”
What will follow tennis for Blake, when either the injuries catch up with him or the desire to compete fades? According to him, he’d like to stay in the sport.
“I’d love to open a tennis club in Connecticut where I grew up,” he says. “I’d love to help kids get in the game and learn it the right way.”
For now, though, the club and his Connecticut home can wait. The road still calls. “Baby steps,” Blake says of his game right now. “I’ve been out here for more than 10 years, but it’s still baby steps these days.”