Beyond The Baseline caught up recently with 10-time ATP Tour winner James Blake, who is back up to 59th in the world after beginning the year at No. 135. The 31-year-old former top-five player, who left Harvard after his sophomore season in 1999 to turn pro, talked about the importance of going to college, the impact of court speed and playing style on the game, his prankster Tour buddies and his upcoming charity event.
SI.com: How do you assess your season? You had some good results in the fall that had to be positive for you.
Blake: Definitely positive about that. The bigger thing is that I was feeling healthy for a while, which is the biggest difference when I’m playing well. Once I get healthy, the confidence starts coming back and I start feeling good out there. I put myself in good position to do well this summer and fall, and just didn’t put together a real big run. But I put myself in a position to do that and hopefully I can continue to do that.
SI.com: How do you adjust your goals going into 2012?
Blake: I never really set goals at the beginning of the year, like rankings or anything like that. I just try to keep getting better. Right now, I feel like that’s possible. It just gets a little tougher as you get older. The body just doesn’t do the same things you want it to do. The real big difference is the injuries. The recovery time isn’t there like it was when you were in your early 20s, when you get injured and you come right back the next day and you’re fine. It’s just a different kind of challenge. It’s about working smarter, figuring out when I need to be practicing, how much my body can really handle. I feel good about that. My goals are just to keep playing.
SI.com: What impact does the change in court speed — getting slower across the board — have on how quickly your body can recover?
Blake: I think the overall physicality of the sport nowadays is what plays a role. Tennis has always had a long season, but with the way the sport has become so much more about power and strength, the bodies are taking so much more of a beating.
With the speed of the court going slower, the ball slowing down a bit, that definitely makes the points seem longer. It makes it more physical. I just think the game has gotten so fast and turned into such an athletic battle, as opposed to it definitely being a bit slower back in the ’70s and ’80s. It really takes a toll and it’s so much more difficult to get through an entire season healthy. In fact, you rarely see more than 10 or 15 players who make it through a whole season who don’t have to pull out of one or two tournaments or retire in a match, or take time off. It’s just much more difficult.
SI.com: Would you want to see more differential in terms of court speed?
Blake: I would like to see a little more variety. Grass-court tennis is basically three our four weeks out of the year. Clay-court tennis is a much longer season, whereas there used to be much more grass. There are very few tournaments where you feel like you’re playing on very fast hard courts. I wouldn’t say that it would be better for me. I think in fact that slow hard courts are probably one of my best surfaces.
But I still think it’d be better if there was more variety. You’d see more variety in the game, you’d see more serve-and-volleyers. But I do think it’s become a little more homogenized. There’s sort of just one speed with minor adjustments.
SI.com: So when you were at the Stockholm Open last month, Mardy Fish sent out a tweet telling everyone who had your cell phone number to text you as a way to rack up your phone bill. Did you know about that?
Blake: Yeah, I knew about that. He and Andy [Roddick] thought they were very funny and they both texted me a million times when I was over there to jack up my phone bill. I guess that’s what friends are for.
SI.com: The American team is pretty close. What are your best memories of pranks you guys have pulled on each other?
Blake: Putting me on the spot there. When we’re around each other, we know we have to tie our pants if we have sweatpants or shorts on, because I think every one of us has been pantsed in a public scenario. If you leave your cell phone somewhere, for sure something’s going to happen to that, whether there will be some funny numbers put in there or someone’s going to get called, or pictures are going to be taken that shouldn’t be on there. At Davis Cup, we really make each other miserable at times.
SI.com: I did an informal poll on Twitter asking people to pick an ATP player they’d want on their team to play pub trivia. Your name came up quite often. Who do you think would give you a run for your money in a game of Trivial Pursuit?
Blake: [Paul] Goldstein’s retired but he’d beat me, for sure. Stanford alum, very bright guy. Scott Lipsky is a bright guy as well. He’s another Stanford guy. Somdev [Devvarman] graduated [from Virginia], so he’d probably be a pretty tough out. I like my chances against [John] Isner. He’s another one who went four years to college [at Georgia] but I don’t see him putting up much of a fight. I’ve beaten him at Jeopardy!.
Andy Roddick’s smarter than people want to give him credit for. He likes playing the dumb-jock role but don’t believe that. He’s smarter than you think. Actually, another guy who people don’t think was as bright as he is is Marat Safin. He’s a very, very bright guy. He’d be tough, especially if we played in one of the other three languages he speaks.
SI.com: After he qualified for the World Tour Finals, Mardy Fish thanked the USTA for everything it had done for him. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association gets blasted for its inability to develop talent. What are your thoughts on the importance of tennis federations in a player’s development?
Blake: Tennis is such an individual sport that you really need to focus on the individual and how they get to where they’re going. You can’t say any one system is what makes anyone successful. If Andre Agassi trained like Pete Sampras, who trained like Michael Chang, who trained like someone else, all of them would have been different. If they all took one way to get to the top, it would have been the best situation for one of them, and the other three or four wouldn’t have accomplished what they accomplished. So I think the federations need to be flexible and they need to listen to what the players do.
I didn’t go the normal route. I went to normal public schools. I had Brian Barker as my coach from when I was 11 years old until I was about 29 years old. So I think the federation really needed to embrace that and learn from Brian what I was doing, what made me successful and what made me who I was as a player. I think federations in American tennis, since it’s such a large country with a huge talent pool, they need to focus on the individual and not any sort of system. Whereas some of the smaller countries can get away with it, they can all train in one spot because it’s so close.
But if you’re growing up here in the States and you’re training in California and I’m training in Connecticut and someone else is training in Florida and those are the three best players in the country right now, we’re not going to decide we’re all going to train together in one spot. In a country as big as America, there needs to be flexibility. What I think would be the best of the USTA is a lack of ego. Letting people develop on their own and being OK with that plan, as opposed to sticking to one policy the way maybe they do in smaller countries.
SI.com: What drove your decision to go the college route as opposed to going directly to the pros?
Blake: I wasn’t good enough to be a pro player at 17 years old. I wasn’t ready physically and I wasn’t ready mentally. I still needed to grow up some, I still needed to fill out. I probably left for school at 155 pounds. I play now at 180 pounds. I don’t think I would have been able to survive on the Tour at 155. I really needed to get better.
Also, I won a lot of matches and I think that’s huge for guys who can maybe make it on Tour, maybe not. Without that, you go out there [on Tour] and just lose week after week after week. I think I lost four matches my freshman year, so I won 40 or 50 matches. That’s a huge benefit to me. It made me learn how to win. That’s so important.
I really encourage players, even if they’re thinking about only going for one year, if you go to college for one year and you dominate, you don’t lose anything in terms of time because you’ll still be able to play this sport for a long time. If you go for a year and you dominate, then you gain that confidence and you’ll know that you made the right decision. The only next step is the pros, and you feel like you’d be ready for that and you’d have taken out any doubt about your decision. Of course, there are players who pretty obviously should turn pro: Sam Querrey, Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish. When they’re that talented at 17 years old, it doesn’t make sense for them to go to college.
I learned so much being part of a team. It helped me so much, not only on the court but in life in general. It’s good to be a freshman and carry the senior’s bags and sleep on the floor and just learn to be the bottom rung of the totem pole. That helps you a little bit as you get older. Instead of being told all the time that you’re the savior or something, you need to learn that sometimes it’s OK to be the bottom rung.
SI.com: You have the seventh annual Serving for a Cure charity event to support cancer research on Nov. 28 in New York. How proud are you to have this charity be a part of your legacy and contribution to tennis?
Blake: I’m really proud of the event and that it’s been going on since 2005 and how it continues to get support from all my friends. All the people who have performed — John Mayer, Gavin DeGraw, Wyclef Jean, Boyd Tinsley — it’s so helpful. Just the people who have shown up to buy tickets and all the tennis players who have attended. Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Jim Courier — we’ve had such great support. That’s what has made it a viable option to raise a lot of money.
I’ve had such a good time doing it. It’s been a lot more work than I ever expected it to be, but it’s the same way as with tennis — from when you’re a kid, you make all these sacrifices for your sport. I’m making sacrifices for this event but I don’t consider them sacrifices because it’s what I want to do. So it’s a lot of fun. It’s like what people say: If you can make your job what you want to do, then you’re not really working. That’s how I feel about this.