Scott Adams on James Blake
Recently there was a tennis tournament in Indian Wells. It's one of the biggest tournaments not counting the four Grand Slam events. Because tennis is an individual sport, there are always great stories within the game. This year's biggest story was James Blake's comeback.
If you don't follow the game, let me give you some background. Blake is the son of an African-American dad and an English mom. He was raised in Connecticut and had to wear a back brace for years when he was a kid. He took up tennis, excelled, and went to Harvard for two years before going pro. He looked promising, along with a number of other young Americans, but not top 10 material. He was most noted for his sex appeal and great personality.
I became a fan after watching him play Lleyton Hewitt a few years ago. After some calls that went against Hewitt, the Aussie singled out an African-American linesperson and complained to the chair umpire. Hewitt used a poor choice of words that led observers to think he was complaining of racial favoritism. Hewitt says he didn't mean it that way, but nonetheless it became the story. And the media tried hard to get Blake to bite. They wanted him to complain about racism, maybe get a little mad about it. That's good TV. But Blake didn't take the bait. He politely pointed out that people say things in the heat of the moment, and whatever Hewitt said was Hewitt's problem, not his. It seemed to me the perfect response. Sometimes trivializing is the best strategy.
Blake's ranking bobbed up and down, peaking at 22 in the world. He shaved his dreadlocks and gave up his sex symbol image along with millions in potential endorsements. (I'm guessing his hair was prematurely thinning.) Then in 2004 he had the year from Hell. He ran into a tennis net post and broke his neck. Then he got a shingles virus in his face that paralyzed it on one side. Then his dad died.
There was some doubt that Blake would ever play tennis again. He watched the major tournaments from his couch and wondered about his future. In time, his body recovered, and he felt that he had been given a second chance. He grabbed it by the neck.
I don't know what kind of training he did, but oh-my-god. I watched him play in person during the first week of the Indian Wells tournament and thought it couldn't be the same guy. There was ferocity to his strokes. He wasn't just hitting the ball, he was punishing it. His court speed was breathtaking. His shot selection was brilliant. His backhand, previously a weakness, had become a rocket.
You only needed to listen to the court sounds to know that Blake was heading deep into the tournament. When a tennis racket strikes a ball perfectly, it creates a sound wave that spectators can feel in their entire bodies. If you play tennis yourself, you can practically close your eyes and know who is winning.
Blake blasted through the field of world-class tennis players and found himself in an unlikely semi-final with a Spanish force of nature named Rafael Nadal. Nadal is the #2 player in the world. He hits with brutal topspin. It's a relentless attack that less than a handful of elite players have been able to withstand in the past year.
Nadal brought his best, but Blake blew past with a combination of game and gamesmanship that surprised almost everyone, not the least Nadal himself.
Now it was time for the championship match against Roger Federer, the best player in the world. Correction “ make that the best tennis player who has ever lived". That's not just my opinion. He already has seven Grand Slam wins. If he stays healthy, many people expect him to hold every important record in tennis.
Against all odds, Blake blazed to a 4-1 first set advantage against the all-time greatest player on earth. It seemed as though nothing could stop him.
And then something happened. The momentum shifted. The rest of the match was all Federer. Blake seemed to fade away, settling for runner-up, but his effort that week was enough to put him in the top ten in the world.
At the trophy ceremony, Blake spoke to the crowd. He said that in 2004, when he was in the hospital with a broken neck, only one tennis player sent him a note to wish him well. It was Roger Federer.
I wanted Blake to win that match, yet somehow, by losing he found perfection.
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