Last week, as announced, James Blake left the tennis world after losing in the first round of the U.S. Open against the Croatian Ivo Karlovic. The opportunity to look back on ten beautiful stories that marked the first 33 years of his life between dreadlocks, Harvard and hearing impairment. Tribute.
1/ « Sorry mate, but you really look like an idiot»
Yonkers. It's in this poor town in the south of the State of New York that James Blake had the good sense to be born on the 28th of December 1979. As Ella Fitzgerald and DMX before him, but nobody else since. His father, Thomas Blake, sales manager in a large local company, gave him his first racket when he was five years old. The early days were promising. But puny, whiny and angry - "We Americans, at that time, all had John McEnroe as hero" - for his age, Blake took a long time to hatch out. In one year, he grew of 9 inches. His talent then took another dimension. Unfortunately, suffering from cancer, his father was already living his last years and died in 2004. The stress and pain caused to James Blake a herpes zoster, a temporary facial paralysis and a hearing loss on the left side... but also great laughter. "One day, a friend of mine came to see me at the hospital. It was hilarious: 'Sorry mate, but you really look like an idiot like that' he said. I can't thank him enough for that. Humour was my best therapy."
2/ Rome, scoliosis and cervical fracture
Precocious talent, James Blake suffered at 13 years old of a severe scoliosis that made him prisoner of a corset for 18 hours a day: "When I was growing up, I wore splints to protect my back. I only felt like a normal kid when I was leaving the court and could be freed me from this yoke." In 2004, during a tournament in Rome, he hit a pole holding the net during a training session, fractured a cervical vertebra and landed in the hospital in sportswear. Still covered with dirt. "I stink, it's horrible, he told the nurses, confused. Before admitting: "All the hospital staff was making fun of me. I understand: damn, how ridiculous is it for a tennis player of my level to take a net post in the head! Nobody does that, right?"
3/ Student in Harvard
Besides this scoliosis and this surprising series of physical problems, James Blake differs from other tennis champions by his academic background: brilliant studies conducted concurrently with the life of a high-level athlete. Two years spent on the benches of the prestigious Harvard University. There, the economics student was part of a "house", the Mather House, following the tradition of the great American universities. These "houses" all have their own coat of arms, songs, legends, sports teams and a few starry-eyed girls. "We traumatized a few girls" wrote Blake in his autobiography, also recalling the lack of credit some teachers gave him. "In high school I had dreadlocks, my hairdo was wild and incoherent. When I came to Harvard, I started to wear a hat. So I was immediately known as the 'man in hat', he said. Then I cut everything, took off my hat... And everyone forgot about me. Some teachers even asked me what was I doing there."
4 / « Surprise hazing»
While in Harvard, James Blake haf the privilege to be part of a "final club" these secret societies that constitute a social and intellectual elite in some American universities, eventually creating a network of influence and support maintained from one generation to another. In these institutions, girls are prohibited. Male students must be co-opted by a club member. Blake was sponsored by his older brother, Tom. The rite of passage? "A surprise hazing, according to the American. You know, at night, they wake you up completely drunk and vandalize your room to let you know that you have just been accepted by the brotherhood. I remember that I used to wake up in the middle of the night every day. I was always afraid they would arrive at that time. But if you're standing, it doesn't work. If you knew how many awful nights I had then. Pretending to be asleep." After a long period of insomnia, a group of drunkards finally came to wake him up at dawn: "Luckily, they partied through the night. It was 5:00 in the morning. I had time to go back to sleep."
5/ Umpire Spectator at Roland Garros
May 2006, court number 1 at Roland Garros. During a match between James Blake and Gael Monfils, the American stopped the exchange on a disputed foul ball for the French. He showed the track in question, immediately confirmed by the referee Carlos Ramos. But suddenly, in the stands, a spectator objected. "I was right in front. Instinctively, I shouted loudly: 'Nooo' "recalls Pascal Dugenne, the said spectator. Surprised, James Blake invited the anonymous to stand on the court to face his responsibilities. A tracks contest for a tasty tennis moment, "I didn't move, I walked in and showed them the track I had seen. On this one, Monfils got ripped off. But he won the game anyway." Phew.
6/ The fastest forehand in the world
Spirit, generosity and a boxer’s footwork. These were the essential qualities of a player who knew how to play in a dramatic fashion. A smile on the face to overcome the harshness of the courts, him who loved a good fight, long battles from the baselines and lightning accelerations. But the main weapon of James Blake? The fastest forehand ever hit in the history of tennis, at the 2011 U.S. Open. A rocket clocked at 125 mph on a match point. Legendary.
7/ « Poker even helped me for tennis»
Golf and basketball lover, James Blake is first and foremost an avid poker player. In 2010, the prestigious Full Tilt Poker team even announced his arrival among their team of sponsored players. Some televised games between celebrities were enough for him to say in 2008: "I feel that playing poker even helped me in tennis. If you win - or lose - a big shot, you can't let it affect you too much, you have to keep playing smart. I think this is something that I used in my tennis, dealing with the ups and downs that come with each game." Bluff?
8 / Lleyton Hewitt, a racist?
American Open 2001. In his Second round match against James Blake, Lleyton Hewitt was losing two sets to one when he addressed the chair umpire. His request? Change an African-American linesman that kept counting him foot faults. "You penalize me only on one side, he said, annoyed, pointing to the person in question. Look at him. Look at him! Tell me what is the similarity!" Understand: the linesman would favour Blake because of his skin colour. Huge scandal in the press. But not amongst the players. Blake wasn't shocked and Ivanisevic, a close friend of Blake, even defended the Australian a few days later: "This story is ridiculous. When I say that I played like a fag, I might offend the gay community. When I say that I played as a woman, it's the fairer sex who isn't happy. So what can we say?"
9 / « The African-American»
No scandal, no known mistakes or defects.But does this mean that the youngest of the Blake family is the perfect gentleman then? "This guy is full of humanity" said his compatriot Andy Roddick. For proof, James himself extinguished the controversy the American press had created with Hewitt, also saying on this occasion to have never actually suffered from racism. Even better, he made fun of it: " One day I was tired of being categorized as just 'the African-American' guy, so I shaved my head again. Result: I lost $ 1 million from my sponsors."
10/ « the match of my life»
Winner of 10 tournaments during his career, Blake played in 2005, a year after the death of his father, a daunting match against Andre Agassi on the Arthur Ashe court - his idol - at the U.S. Open. A match he lost in the fifth set tiebreak, after leading two sets to nothing. Show, sweat, extraordinary quality of game and burgers smell with more than 20,000 people attending this Hollywood scenario. "I'm a guy from New York and throughout the tournament, I felt like an underdog because there was a great champion in front of me, Blake confessed. But it was the match of my life. The atmosphere was so amazing that winning this match wouldn't have been a more pleasing feeling. Only tennis can give you so much pleasure. "
By Victor Le Grand