When breaking the bone that binds your body together is described as a “good thing”, you’re undeniably having the worst year of your life. For former tennis pro James Blake, that was 2004, the year he broke his neck, lost his father to cancer, and came down with a stress-related virus that paralyzed his face and affected his balance, hearing, and eyesight. So how, two years later, did Blake manage to recover medically, and be ranked the #4 tennis player in the world? At a time when he couldn’t even make contact with the ball on a serve, it didn’t occur to Blake that he would ever play a tournament like the US Open again. The dream seemed too big, and so he focused on micro goals: trying to move his eye fast enough to follow the ball; exercising the muscles in his face to regain the ability to smile; spending five minutes on the court, then two days off recovering. For Blake, the key to bouncing back after a tragic series of setbacks was to not look further than his feet, working at small goals rather faraway wishes—and when he was on the court facing Andre Agassi in the men’s quarter finals of the US Open in 2006, it just felt like the next step in a progression of manageable victories. James Blake is the author of Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.
James Blake: So, back in 2004 I had pretty much a trifecta of setbacks. I first broke my neck, which was the best thing that happened to me that year, and I'll explain that in a minute. I was on a practice court in Rome and pretty much slid headfirst into a net post and fractured C7 in my spine and got to the hospital and eventually got home. When I got home to Connecticut it was the last six weeks of my father's life. He had been suffering from stomach cancer and ended up passing away. So that's why I say breaking my neck was the best thing that happened to me, because I got to be home with my dad and spend that time with him and say all the things that needed to be said to him. And he wouldn't have let me come home otherwise I don't think, because I would've still been on the road and playing and competing. So that was the best thing that happened to me. And after that—stress has an amazing way of bearing itself physically on me and it created a zoster, which is shingles, and it attacked my facial nerves so the left side of my face was paralyzed and I lost my balance and part of my hearing and part of my eyesight, so I was pretty much struggling and didn't know if I would ever play tennis again, and the doctors weren't sure if I would ever play, so that's where setting goals day by day was so important to me. Because if I thought about any sort of playing in the US Open or getting back and being top ten in the world, top 20 in the world, anything like that, it would've seemed so far away. And I think I would've gotten a little depressed. I would've been upset about the fact that I was so far away from that.
So all I did was every day think about what I can do a little better. I would try to move my eye a little bit more or try to be able to smile a little bit more and go out on the court. The first times I went out on the court it was really just being able to see the ball when I tossed it up to serve, it was just spending five minutes on the court with my coach and just seeing if I could actually make contact with the ball.
Then the next day it could be ten minutes, and then, “Okay now I need to take a couple days off because it's disheartening. Now I need to get back to it and try it.” Everyday was getting a little bit better and I still remember a friend of mine joking that, “You know what, next year it's all right, you're going to win the US Open.” And I thought, “You're absolutely crazy, that's not even in my mindset.” And before I knew it, the next year I was in the quarterfinals of the US Open against Andre Agassi and I thought, “Man, I wonder if he was right. Maybe I will actually win the US Open this year.”
And I didn't unfortunately, but the setback was such that I needed to focus on such small goals every single day, that if I had thought that the next year would have been one of the best years of my life and 2006—just two years later—would've been the best year in my career by a long shot and finish at number four in the world, if I had thought of that two years prior when I was laid up and my face wasn't working, I don't think I would've ever gotten there. I needed to just take small steps every single day to reach that goal. And before I knew it when I was reaching that goal I wasn't even thinking back to all the hard work I was doing, and I was like, “This is just the progression, this is where I belong, this is where I should be.” And I think that played a huge part and it was just the process I was taking to get there.