Commentary

Offseason homework has Blake ready

After hitting the proverbial wall last year, a meticulously planned offseason, a fresh outlook and inspiration from president-elect Barack Obama have James Blake ready for the Australian Open.

Originally Published: January 16, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

James BlakePaul Kane/Getty ImagesJames Blake took the necessary time off to recuperate from a wearisome 2008 season.

SYDNEY, Australia -- James Blake often says that he learns as much, if not more, from a loss as a win. Usually he tries to apply those lessons in his very next match.

In this instance, though, he waited 12 months. Blake, the two-time defending champion in Sydney last year, lost disappointingly in the first round. He flew to Melbourne, made the most of his extra practice time and proceeded to have his best-ever performance at the Australian Open, reaching the quarterfinals before falling to Roger Federer.

This year, Blake decided to mimic the conditions, minus the loss. He logged some match time in the exhibition Hopman Cup in the western Australian capital of Perth, then went directly to Melbourne for 10 days of structured training with his coach, Brian Barker.

"This is to tailor-make the preparation," Blake said by phone from Melbourne. "Sydney's great, and I have played well there in the past, but I felt like I couldn't plan the way the days would go. You never know if a match is going to be short or long. This time I know exactly when I'm going to have long days and when I'm going to rest up."

Rest became Blake's watchword late last season when he hit a wall after almost four years without a significant break. He played into December 2007 with the victorious U.S. Davis Cup team, and that season melted into the next, with its condensed schedule dictated by the Olympics. By the time the U.S. Open rolled around, Blake was burned out and unable to muster his usual energy level for his favorite tournament. He would finish 2008 without a tournament title for the first time in four years.

Barker said Blake's long journey back from serious injury and illness in 2004, followed by a sustained period in the top 10, finally caught up with him.

"Most top players, including James, think they can keep doing more and more and always handle what's in front of them," Barker said. "When you're happy to be alive and happy to be healthy and happy to be playing some of the best tennis you've ever played, you're not going to be really excited to take a break. I was going to talk to him about it, but he brought it up to me first."

Blake took September off, bowing out of the Davis Cup semifinals in Spain, and played just seven matches down the stretch. Now he's set to attack the first Grand Slam of the season with fresh legs, a refreshed mind and a new apparel sponsor. After spending 10 years -- his entire professional career -- with Nike, Blake signed with Fila and is starting a co-branded clothing line that will include tennis, golf and casual sportswear.

Blake's new duds for Australia will be white and Carolina blue, a natural choice given his longtime admiration of Michael Jordan. And like No. 1 Rafael Nadal, Blake is abandoning his trademark sleeveless look this season. "I'm even wearing a collar," he said. "Guess I'm getting older."

Having carefully planned his lead-up to the season's first Grand Slam, Blake still doesn't know who his first opponent will be. He drew a qualifier, and might be happy about that relative breather later on, as his quarter includes last year's finalist and one of this year's favorites, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, and Great Britain's Andy Murray.

Federer recently voiced an idea that has been kicking around the players' lounge for some years, proposing that the Australian Open be scheduled a couple of weeks later so players would have more time to warm up for it. Blake said he can see the value in that, but added that he understands the tournament's position, too.

"It would definitely be better for the players if it was later, but then the kids are back in school and people aren't on holiday," he said. "The Australian is unique. It's a real test of who's done the hard work in the offseason, who's fit and who's working their way in."

One small drawback of being in the Southern Hemisphere next week is that Blake will miss the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, with whom he shares two significant experiences: growing up in a mixed-race family and seeing his autobiography become a best-seller.

One of Blake's freshman-year roommates at Harvard, Peter Gage, is director of the inaugural parade. Another friend actually scored one of the coveted tickets to the ceremony for Blake, "but the job gets in the way, and I'm glad to have a job," he said.

Blake appeared at two Obama fundraisers during the campaign but has not met the new president, who is reportedly a serious tennis fan and appreciates Blake in particular.

The 29-year-old watched the election returns at home in Connecticut with his mother and a few close friends. His wider circle of friends, who knew how much Obama's victory meant to him, besieged him with text messages and phone calls when the results became official. "It's a time of a ton of expectations and great opportunities," Blake said.

Blake carried Obama's first book, "Dreams From My Father," in his tennis bag last spring and said he found Obama's account of his youthful search for identity moving and note-perfect.

"It made it really easy to read," Blake said. "I got the feeling that he felt the same way as I did. As you're growing up, you don't notice you're different until people start forcing you to notice. You feel normal until someone tells you you're not. … My parents always told me there was nothing different about me, nothing wrong, that I was just as good as the next person."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.