Countdown to Wimbledon: Breaking the mould

James Blake is not your typical American tennis star. To begin with he is black, and then there's his mother - who is from Banbury. As he fine-tunes his preparations for Wimbledon, he talked to Paul Newman
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James Blake is delighted to be nearly $3,000 [£1,670] worse off this year. In fact, he hopes at least to double that figure over the next six months. The Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Springfield, Massachusetts is rather pleased as well. Every time Blake wins a tennis match he donates $100 to the hospital, which provides free treatment at its institutions across the United States.

Come the end of his 2006 campaign the world No 7 can expect to be writing out one of his largest cheques yet to the hospital, which he also supports in many other ways. After six years as a professional, the boy from New York with the bad back is showing that he can compete with the very best.

Blake was 13 when his mother noticed that his shoulder blades did not line up. Doctors at Shriners Hospital diagnosed scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and for most of his teenage years he had to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day.

If ever there was a walking advert for the wonders of modern medicine it is the 26-year-old American. Today there is arguably no better athlete in tennis and he has proved in his rise from No 210 in the world rankings just 14 months ago that he has the game to match his physical prowess. After winning just one senior ATP title in his first five years on the circuit, Blake has won four in the last 10 months and climbed to his highest-ever world ranking.

If Blake's success is remarkable considering his medical history, there are plenty of other reasons why he can be described as an exceptional talent. Despite the achievements of his boyhood inspiration, Arthur Ashe, not many black players have broken through in tennis: certainly not many black players who went to Harvard; and quite definitely not many black players with an Ivy League education and an English mother.

Betty Misseldine was born and raised in Banbury, Oxfordshire, before going to America at the age of 17 and meeting Thomas Blake on a tennis court in Jonkers, New York.

"My Dad learned tennis when he was in the Air Force," James explained as he relaxed between matches at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club this week. "He had the sort of personality where if he took something up he would really go at it full throttle. He was always trying to find someone to hit with and one day he met my Mum, who was one of the better players where he was playing, at Fay Park in Yonkers."

Blake's mother - his father died two years ago - never misses the opportunity to accompany her son to England and catch up with her relatives. "One year I went to Banbury to see where she grew up," Blake said. "In one of the pubs we visited there was someone who actually remembered her mother. She has an unusual maiden name. If you meet any Misseldines they're probably related to me.

"When she's here you can never wipe the smile off her face. She doesn't get a chance to come here that often and loves being back in the country where she grew up." Does Blake feel any empathy with his mother's homeland? "I'm not sure I feel at home on the grass courts here, but I do feel at home with the culture," he said. "My mum always told me about life in England when I was growing up and so it's never seemed strange to me."

While the teenaged Blake had obvious potential as a tennis player - which he quickly realised when he was able to discard the back brace - he showed just as much ability in the classroom and won a place at Harvard. "The fact that I chose to study economics shows how I really hadn't been planning on having a professional career as a tennis player," Blake said. "I was going there for academic reasons. But before I knew it I'd improved my tennis so much I wasn't getting pushed enough in college tennis.

"I was practising tennis for a couple of hours a day and spending maybe 45 minutes in the gym, but I wanted more. I would play for another hour in the morning maybe four times a week. But there were also times when I had exams and had to put the racket down for three or four days."

Blake left halfway through his four-year course. "It was a very big decision for me. At first my Dad wouldn't hear of me turning pro. He said: 'You're at Harvard. You can't give away this opportunity.' But once he realised that I really did believe it, that I really had a dream and had a chance to make it, he changed completely. He was 100 per cent behind me.

"I think I'll go back and finish my studies one day, though I won't do economics. The main reason I studied it originally was because I thought it might be useful to go to business school, but I don't think I'll ever do that now. I might do sociology or Afro-American Studies."

After quickly climbing into the world's top 30 and winning his first tournament, at Washington in 2002, Blake's progress was halted by a double setback two years ago. He broke a vertebra in his neck when he collided with a net post during practice in Rome ("Luckily I didn't do any damage to my back, though the doctor in Italy couldn't read the MRI scan because my back is still crooked") and then fell ill with shingles.

Since making his comeback at the start of last year, however, Blake has hardly looked back. Having made significant improvements to his backhand, which was his weak point, he now has a formidable all-round game and surprised himself with several excellent results during the clay-court season.

The next challenge is to make the breakthrough at a Grand Slam tournament. Blake's best performance to date was reaching the quarter-finals of last year's US Open, but many believe he has the game to succeed on grass and he is already shaping up well for Wimbledon, where he has never gone beyond the second round.

He is through to today's semi-final at Queen's and next week will complete his Wimbledon preparations at the Boodles Challenge invitation event at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire alongside the likes of Andre Agassi and David Nalbandian. "I'm guaranteed three matches because of the format there, so it's perfect match practice" Blake said. "It's a beautiful club and we get treated very well. We get to play some good matches on a similar surface to Wimbledon. It's a good way to prepare for a Grand Slam event."

Blake first played on a grass court when he was 17 and lost in the first round of all three competitions he entered. "When I started on grass I used to try to change my game completely. I grew up watching grass-court tennis on TV. I'd watch guys like McEnroe and Becker charge into the net on every point. Nowadays the courts and the balls are slower and the players have got so much better at returning serve and playing from the baseline that you just can't do that any more.

"I don't serve and volley nearly as much today. I used to rush in with reckless abandon, but that's not my game on hard courts and it's not my game on clay, so it shouldn't be my game on grass. These days I just make slight adjustments to my game as opposed to a complete overhaul.

"The British players like Henman and Murray are much more comfortable on grass than I am, but I'm learning. To me it's all a question of movement. That's always been one of my biggest assets, but it's taken away a bit on grass. You can't stop and change direction quickly and you're always a bit afraid of sliding."

Blake names Jim Courier ("because of his work ethic") and Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander ("such cool customers and so relaxed, so patient") as key tennis influences, though Ashe was his greatest inspiration. He never saw him play but remembers him visiting the junior tennis programme where he learned the game. "It wasn't the fact that he was such a good player or won Wimbledon and the US Open that impressed me," Blake said. "Everybody said such good things about him off the court. They would talk about him as a human rights activist. He was such a socially active person that he made a difference off the court."

Basketball's Michael Jordan was another important role model. "He was the best player in the league yet he'd still work harder than a rookie. I try to work very hard. People say I look athletic on the court, but I think they often don't realise that it takes a lot of hard work to make things look easy."

Meeting Blake today it is hard to imagine that he was a racket-throwing teenager. "I was so competitive that I just couldn't take losing," he said. "I worked hard but I was also a perfectionist. But I gradually came to realise that whining and crying wasn't going to help me win. The only thing that would do that was getting back on the practice court."

More recently, the physical problems that he faced two years ago brought a new sense of perspective. "When I got sick I told myself that maybe it was my body telling me that I needed to be back home, with my Mum, my brother and friends, to try to get a whole new outlook on life without tennis.

"It was good to see again what life is like for a normal person, to see my buddies going off to their nine-to-five jobs every day, coming home and just waiting for the weekend and the chance to go to the beach. It made me appreciate what I do for a living."