“He’s the nicest American player we’ve had in years …” That was the comment from a friend upon hearing that I’d sat down for an interview with James Blake.
James has always been mentioned as one of the “nice guys” on tour: more often than not, as part of the rap against him in big match losses. But that’s also the thing that resonated with his many fans in an era of big egos and bad attitudes.
James retired in 2013 after a first-round loss to Ivo Karlovic at the US Open. In typical Blake fashion, it was a thrilling, five-set heartbreaker 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2). For many, this was the problem in rooting for Blake. Even with the immense talent he possessed (speed, smarts, and that killer forehand), James always seemed to fall short in his biggest matches.
One could also say that he did the best that he could with his talent, and left the game on his own terms. That’s pretty much James’ view of it all. He did what he loved, and now looks forward to whatever the future holds for him and his family.
I learned that and more in my sit-down with James before the evening session at the PowerShares Series in Sacramento. And yes, he really is that nice! Here are highlights from our sit-down.
How are you feeling after your win last night (in Salt Lake City)?
Feels good! It was close (though). The guy can still play. It’s pretty impressive.
You’ve made quite a splash the PowerShares tour with successive finals and a title on your third try. Has coming on tour relit the competitive fire in you?
It’s fun to have some competitive atmosphere. I haven’t really been competitive – extremely competitive – besides a little bit on the golf course, here and there.
I haven’t had that real competitive nature where you’ve got fans, you’ve got pressure, and things like that in six months or so. So it funs to feel that again. That’s probably one of the biggest things I miss about being on tour.
So what don’t you miss from your days on the tour?
I don’t miss the travel. I don’t miss feeling sore every morning when I wake up. I don’t miss the absolute need for sleep so I can be absolutely prepared for every practice. There’s a long list of things I don’t miss.
But there’s a long list I do miss too. It’s something I loved doing, but I (also) love being home with my family right now. I can’t feel any better than I do about that.
What’s the first thing you did after the US Open and the Karlovic match?
The first thing I did was started feeling comfortable having a couple of beers with dinner, which was great… it was great to let loose, go to a BBQ with my buddies, and just be able to have a few beers and not feel bad about training, and how much it was gonna hurt in the morning.
You didn’t last long in your retirement. Pete, as you know, took a long time to get back to tennis after his retirement. Why did you come back after only 5 months?
I always wanted to take a little time off. But I also feel like I’m getting a little antsy to try and do something. (I’d) like try to get into a different world like hedge funds or finance… or commentary, or do these exhibitions. But I was really excited to just have 4-5 months to just be with my family.
Have you been pushed into commentating? That seems to be the trend these days with popular players when they retire.
It’s fun. I just need to figure out what’s best for me. One of the biggest things I want now is a flexible schedule so I can be there for my kids. I don’t want to be doing something 30 weeks out of the year.
But if I could do something with a flexible schedule, I’d love to be part of a commentary team. I had a great time doing it last year with Bret Haber and Jim Courier. I’d like to do that again.
How is it being a dad?
It’s unbelievable. There’s nothing you can compare to it. I had so many ups and downs on the tour, but there’s nothing like the pressure when you’re one on one with your daughter and you’re the one responsible for her safety, and her food, and changing her, and getting her to sleep on time: everything like that.
Do you think you could have traveled with your family the way Roger has managed to do on tour?
I’m kind of glad I did it the way I did it. It was just at the end of my career. I was comfortable and it was the right time.
We had my daughter travel with me to Wimbledon last year, and down to Miami. For me it forces you to maximize every minute; because you know you have only so many hours in a day, so many hours you spend with her, so many hours you spend with your wife, and so many hours you need to spend on the court.
I found that when my wife and daughter were there I wasn’t sitting around the locker room playing cards with the guys. And I think Roger’s done an unbelievable job of it.
If you had to use one word to describe your career, what would that word be?
Fulfilling. I feel great about it. I did everything I possibly could.
So you don’t buy into the talk that you could have done more with your career? You’re happy with it?
Absolutely! Roger has won 17 Grand Slams and they say he could have won more. Rafa has won however many and they say he could have won more. Andy only won one Grand Slam – ONLY – and he should have won more.
Everyone has those few points they could have won, those few matches they could have won. But I also have a lot of first rounds I could have lost that I didn’t.
Every one of those matches (I lost), I was frustrated as heck that night. But the next day, I was able to sleep comfortably and get over it because I knew I did everything I could to prepare for it. So to ask for anything more, in my opinion, is just greedy. I did the best I could.
Last question. You still have rankings points. Is there any temptation…?
Not even for doubles if you were to get a wildcard?
I think it would be fun, but I also don’t think that I’m physically prepared for that. I’m prepared to come out here and play with these guys (on the PowerShares tour) one set at a time. But if I go out there competing with the big boys, I’d be hurting in a whole different way. Maybe if the New Haven tournament was still there for men, maybe I’d play…
And you’d have your “J-Block” there.
I still have a few friends there. But since then, most of them have gotten real jobs. So it might be a little tougher to get there. I’m sure I’d have a couple of fans out there and have some fun.