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James Blake: Powers Of Recovery

Blake© Getty ImagesJames Blake has been playing on the ATP World Tour for 15 years.

Few players have overcome the challenges James Blake has just to step on to a tennis court, never mind reaching the Top 4 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and amassing 10 ATP World Tour titles. 

The American was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at the age of 13 and had to wear a back brace 18 hours a day. As a professional, he has endured more than his fair share of misfortune. In 2004, he slipped during a practice session in Rome, hitting the net post and fracturing vertebrae in his neck which kept him off the court for three months. He then fell ill with Zoster, a condition affecting his hearing and visionary senses and causing temporary paralysis on one side of his face, prematurely ending his season.

The next three seasons would be the best of his career, though. He was a US Open quarter-finalist in 2005 (l. to Agassi in 5th set tie-break). He finished in the world’s Top 5 in 2006 and reached the final of Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai (l. to Federer). In 2007, he reached his second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final in Cincinnati (l. to Federer). 

Though recent seasons have seen Blake battle more injury woes, the 33-year-old American is still competing on the ATP World Tour and tells, as part of Compeed’s Form & Fitness series, how a positive attitude, the support of family and friends and a diligent approach to developing his fitness and training methods over the years helps keep him playing.

You’ve come through a lot of turbulent times in your career, not just as a professional, but growing up as well. How much of rehabilitation and recovery is mental?
There’s something to be said for resting your mind. We play so much tennis that there needs to be a time where you release, whether it’s golf or playing cards with your friends or going out and sitting on a boat; just doing whatever you need to do to relax. It’s a very individual sport. For me, I need that time away. I love playing golf, I love being home and seeing some of my friends from growing up.

How much does mental strength and self-belief help when you’re coming back from injury and illness, like you had to in 2004?
It’s really huge. One of the most difficult things that people don’t really think about is your confidence when you do get back. We get so used to playing week in, week out, winning matches, losing matches, that it becomes pretty natural. You confidence goes a little bit in ebbs and flows. But then, when you have that much time off, to come back, it’s so hard to really get on a roll, feeling good and feeling confident. 

I have to thank my friends and my coach at that time for getting me back. They kept me laughing, they kept me smiling; they kept me positive when I was sick. Then when I got back, it was so much easier to take the pressure off. I didn’t have the pressure that I had to win every single match as soon as I started. I didn’t feel that because my friends were so behind me. That made a big difference. It got me to have as much confidence as I’ve really ever had on a tennis court, back there in ’05, ’06 and ’07.

How is your training schedule different now than 10 years ago?
It’s very different. I didn’t grow up playing as much tennis as a lot of these guys. When I was 21, 22, 23 years old, still young on tour, I needed to hit tonnes and tonnes of balls. I was on the court a lot of times four and five hours a day, then I’d have a shorter day the next day. But I’d have those really long days and I’d be out there on court running, doing a tonne of stuff, but just really getting the reps in of hitting millions of balls. After doing that, I’d be pretty diligent about being on the track and being in the gym.

But nowadays I need to be a little smarter. If I tried to do what I did at 22 years old, my body wouldn’t let me; it would break down pretty quickly. So I don’t spend as much time on the court. I’m on the court maybe an hour and a half, two hours every day. But I am still in the gym. The gym stuff has changed a little bit too. It’s not as much strengthening and building as it is stretching a little bit and maintenance. A lot of stuff is just trying to maintain to make sure I’m not getting injured. I have the confidence that I don’t need to hit a million balls because I’ve done that before, I’ve already gone through that part of my career. I feel like I can get the confidence back quickly, without being on the court as long.

There’s been a lot of development in sports science in recent years and many players have adapted their diets. Have you ever bought into those sorts of changes?
Throughout my career I’ve done certain things trial and error. I’ve seen what it’s like. I tried a gluten-free diet for a little while. It wasn’t for me! It didn’t work. I lost weight and I didn’t feel great and I guess I don’t have a gluten allergy. So I got back on it and felt a lot better. I tried it for a little over a month and it just wasn’t for me.

I don’t necessarily have the strictest of diets, but I just stay as healthy as I can. I need to get a lot of calories in to make sure I keep my weight up while I’m on tour, because otherwise I’m in danger of just getting too few nutrients and sometimes my body just breaks down. That’s been my pattern throughout my career. So I need to eat pretty much as much as I can, but I do it in healthy ways. I get in a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruit, and then - what most people probably think is terrible - pasta and protein at night. I don’t eat candy, I don’t drink soda, I don’t go out drinking too often. So I generally keep it pretty healthy, but I don’t have a strict regimen where I have to be weighing my food or doing anything like that.

At the age of 33, can you talk about the recovery from five-set matches? 
For me, my whole career has been about finding a way to recover for the next day. Nowadays, a three-set match to me, the way my body is, feels like a five-set match! The recovery has got to be pretty consistent. I’m lucky I have Rory Cordial, my trainer and physiotherapist with me. He’ll flush out my legs. I use these new NormaTec sleeves that go on your legs and they really flush out anything from your legs. That’s been really helpful. For me, something that’s really important is getting a good night’s sleep. Usually, you’re pretty tired after a five-setter so you’re going to sleep like a rock anyway. I need to get at least eight hours, hopefully more. That becomes something that’s really important in recovery.

Which player on tour do you think…
Is most flexible? Max Mirnyi
Has the best footwork? Novak Djokovic
Has the best balance? Roger Federer
Has the greatest muscular endurance? Rafael Nadal
Is the quickest? Gael Monfils

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