James Blake has seen triumph and tragegy on and off the court. The biracial son of an African-American father and British mother, by age 11 he seriously was hooked on the game. By the time he entereed his sophomore year at Harvard University, Blake had seen mixed success on the professional circut. But, his biggest challenges came within months of each other. He struggled to follow his father Toms's advice, just as Tom, was losing his battle with stomach cancer. Then he ran into a steel post during a practice game in Rome and fractured the vertebrae in his neck. All of this was before he was diagnosed with paralyzing shingles.
The book serves as his memoir and tells his tell of roaring back to become the top-ranked American player in the world.
For an excerpt of "Breaking Back" see below.
For professional tennis players, December is an annual abyss.
The year's competition is done, and everyone on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour scatters around the planet to relax for the only month of our sport's notoriously stingy off-season. Come January, those of us who aren't nursing injuries will flock to Australia, or one of a handful of other destinations, for the first tournaments of the New Year. From there, we will continue to travel and play on and off for the better part of the next eleven months.
Success in professional sports is a funny thing. You might say that pro athletes live with three certainties looming over them: Death, taxes, and retirement. In the back of your mind, you know that no matter how good you are, what you've got is either fleeting or finite-at some point it's going to end, either by choice or because your body will simply give out.
So, much as we welcome our downtime in December, we must also contend with the what-ifs that it brings: What if I just had the best year I'm capable of? What if this slump I'm in isn't really a slump? What if it's the beginning of the long, slow slide to oblivion? Even the best player in the world faces his own versions of this question: what if this was my last year of being number one? What if that new teenager everyone's buzzing about is even better than I am? What if I get injured next year and it all comes screeching to a halt?
For most players, these are the questions that come up every December, but for me, December 2003 was the first year that I really found myself asking them. In 1999, I left college after my sophomore year to become a professional tennis player, but it took me a few Decembers before I really came to understand the abyss that the month presents. Like many young athletes, I was having too much fun for such weighty introspection. The ATP tour is like a kind of traveling neverland, where no one forces you to grow up. So a lot of the guys are indistinguishable from overgrown adolescents-when not hitting tennis balls, or the gym, we spend our time hanging out, playing poker, watching television, mastering video games, instant messaging each other, perfecting iPod playlists, and planning the occasional practical joke.
Don't get me wrong, staying fit and honing your game are hard work, and if you do them right, they consume several hours a day. In addition, there are the other commitments-interviews, photo shoots, personal appearances, and promoting whatever tournament you find yourself in on any given week. But when you stack it up against most other "jobs," life out on the tour is basically a dream, in more ways than one. It's a dream come true, because most of us grew up idolizing professional athletes and can hardly believe we've become one ourselves, and the higher you climb, the more surreal it gets. People recognize you on the street; designers throw clothes at you on the off chance that a reporter might mention it in print; hordes of children line up outside your practice court to have you autograph tennis balls, rackets, hats, or even body parts when nothing else is available; and you spend a ridiculous amount of time on airplanes, literally living among the clouds.
In some ways, I think that the experience has been stranger for me than it has for most of my peers because I was never supposed to make my living as a jock. If most adolescent athletes have "sports parents," then I had "school parents"-a mother and father who revered education above everything else and treated it as a lifelong pursuit, not just something to occupy you until age twenty-one. On a daily basis, they demonstrated their commitment to learning by using themselves as examples. My mother, Betty, is a voracious reader and occasional writer, while my father, Tom, continued to enhance his communication skills well into his fifties by reading and by taking a vocabularybuilding class.
Early on, my parents had to endure some social hardships as a mixed-race couple. My father was black and my mother white, and it wasn't always easy. One night, early in their courtship, they were dining at a restaurant and my father caught another man staring at them. "I have nice teeth, too," my father said, grinning broadly at the guy. It was a private joke between him and my mom, a reference to the way plantation owners looking to purchase a slave would sometimes ask to see his teeth. The man probably didn't understand, but my mother still laughs, a little sadly, when she recounts the story.
Despite incidents like that, my parents always maintained their belief in the essential decency of people, and they passed this faith on to me and my older brother, Thomas Jr. When I was a junior player, another kid told me he felt sorry for me because of my genealogy, predicting that I'd be hated by blacks and whites. I told my mother about what he said, and she replied that she didn't see why I wouldn't be loved by both communities, an outcome that hadn't even occurred to me before she mentioned it. And fortunately for me, what she predicted is exactly what came to pass.
Optimism of that kind was infectious, and the constant support of my parents helped me to persevere through the awkward and often ignorant comments of some of the people around me. While my interracial heritage may seem to be a tailor-made story of adversity, the adversity never really materialized in many ways because I never allowed it to overtake my worldview. My parents' inclination toward truly loving life and expecting the best from it shaped my entire outlook, helping me to believe in the inherent goodness of other people and keeping me from being sucked down into the darkness that sometimes overshadows the joy of living. . . .