What happens when a professional athlete has a near-paralyzing accident, contracts zoster, and loses a beloved parent to cancer? James Blake, a professional tennis player currently ranked ninth in the world describes his Annus Horribilis in 2004 and how he literally bounced back in his book Breaking Back.
At 11, Blake met his current coach Brian who taught him not merely to uncover the weaknesses in his game but the weaknesses in his thinking about the game. In the late 90s, he was a student at Harvard playing [and winning] college tennis when he turned pro in 1999. Blake had a few good years on the tour until his frightening accident in Rome in 2004. After the accident, illness, and his father's death he came out fighting to rank in the top ten worldwide. Whew, what a story and it's only just begun.
Blake explains the title “breaking back”: “If you lose the serve, you’ve been ‘broken,’ and unless you can break back by winning a game on your opponent’s serve, and regain equal footing, then it’s impossible to win the set. One of the most telling marks of your character on the court is whether or not you can break back, because you need to pull it off when your confidence is down and your opponent’s is up.” Blake's title is apt, the entire book is a tribute to the act of breaking back, of fighting to stay in the game of life not merely with confidence, but with grace.
A tennis-playing ex-BF once told me that tennis is more of mental game than anything else. As I’ve watched it over the years I’m compelled to agree. Unlike other sports, soccer, football, or basketball, tennis is not a team sport; it's played solo, one player against another. There's no coaching allowed once the game is in play; no huddle, no headphones, no gatorade bucket at the end. A player must solve their problems solo.
Watch tennis for more than a few minutes, really watch and you can see a player become intimidated, lose confidence, lose hope just as easily as you can see a player get revved up and psyched up. What other game do you see the full range of emotions on a players face as part of the game; hear their rebel yells, grunts, curses and cries as they push their bodies past the breaking point?
James talks freely about his mental game, about how “…your relationship with the ball is your relationship with life…[r]ight after talent, health and conditioning, confidence is about the most important thing a tennis player can posses.” A well of personal confidence for Blake is his father. Blake Sr., who looms large and ever present in Breaking Back, was a strong believer in the healing power of hard work. One of his personal mottos was: “You can’t control your talent but you can control your level of effort.” It reminds me of a saying I'd heard about perfectionism: “Don’t strive for perfection; strive for excellence.” Blake's father’s years of unwavering support, love, and discipline and Blake's strong support system sustained him through a year of wondering what if he never played again due to his neck injury. It also allowed him to move forward, not to wallow in self-pity, doubt or mourning for his losses but to focus on his gains.
Breaking Back might not be groundbreaking non-fiction sports lit; however the lessons are sound: work hard, don’t be hard on yourself; life demands discipline not desperation; you can’t control your level of talent but can control your level of effort; hold on to your friends with both hands; don’t worry about winning, just get better.
You can watch James Blake play in a few weeks during the US Open. Perhaps during a rain delay they will rerun one of his greatest matches with Andre Agassi in 2005.