The big blue U.S. Open Series bus rolled up to the hotel and one person stepped out through the door and onto the curb: James Blake. Jeez, the guy is gorgeous and that was part of the attraction. He’s also the only recognizable U.S. star in the draw at the Countrywide Classic which starts on Monday in Los Angeles.

Sam Querrey is also playing but he doesn’t draw excitement quite yet. Sam isn’t in the top ten and, more importantly, he didn’t play a classic U.S. Open quarterfinal match against tennis hero Andre Agassi that lasted till 1:30 in the morning and left everyone in the U.S. talking about tennis. James was the one who did that.

There was one more reason James was on the bus. He just published a book called Breaking Back with Andrew Friedman and the U.S. Open Series is doubling as a book tour. James really did break his back, actually he fractured vertebrae in his neck after running into a net post during a practice session in Rome; one more reason for U.S. players to skip the European clay court season if they needed another reason.

James flew back to the U.S. and while he was recuperating from his injury, his father, Thomas, died of stomach cancer. The book covers James’ recuperation and his father’s death.

Here are a few things to know about James Blake.

He answers media questions in great detail. In fact, he gives the longest answers on the professional tennis tour because he feels privileged that you’d ever want to talk to him.

He feels lucky to be on the pro tour. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would make it to the top ten and now he’s been there for sixteen months. Unlike Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who turned pro when they were 16 years old, James didn’t even know what the tour was when he was 16.

He doesn’t lose his temper. I did see him call out Fernando Gonzalez for taking dubious time outs in a five set Davis Cup match that James lost after winning the first two sets. On the same day he got annoyed at a journalist who excoriated him for losing all seven of his five set matches up to that point. But he didn’t raise his voice. Reading his book, you can see why:

My father was Mister Serious. Road tripping with him was all business. We’d sit in the car, hands in our laps, facing forward, talking at a respectable level and not even considering getting out of line.

Losing a match is not the end of the world for him:

It hurts me when I lose, it’s difficult but I am also then the day after realistic about the fact that the worst thing that happens to me at the end of the day is that I lost a tennis match. [That’s] probably a pretty good day compared to most people.

He doesn’t set goals.

I don’t set goals like I want to win this tournament or I want to be in the finals of a tournament … or I want to be ranked this. The only thing I set at the beginning of every year and the beginning of every tournament is to get better. Every match, every practice, figure out a way to improve from it whether it’s a win or a loss. That’s how I judge whether or not I’m happy with my game.

Okay, so he’s a well-behaved young man with a good perspective on life who doesn’t take his good fortune for granted. I can appreciate that but I still want him to win a five set match one of these days and I’d be very happy for him if he won a slam and I can’t help thinking he’d be more likely to do both of those things if he wasn’t quite as modest.

After the interview, I was sitting around a table with a group of journalists and we were going down the list of players and deciding who has, ahem, balls and who doesn’t. Venus and Serena Williams do, of course. Nadal does. Roger Federer didn’t need them until Nadal took him to five sets last Sunday but now we can say that he does.

James Blake did not pass the test. He’s an exceptional guy and he’s gone a lot farther in his tennis career than he thought he ever would, but now that he has, he’s left us wanting more.

We want him to feel a little less fortunate and a little more entitled. No, we don’t want him to turn into a selfish athlete who throws cash around at strip bars and takes advantage of women. We just want him to realize that anyone who reaches a ranking of number four in the world is a damned good tennis player. Few players are better. Because that’s the kind of attitude it’ll take to carry him from two sets down to a five set victory and that’s what it’ll take to get through two weeks of a slam and come out with the title.

I asked him if he’d learned anything about himself while writing the book:

I’ve always tried to be a very strong person, to follow in the footsteps of my father, keeping things to myself and not burdening people with my problems. It made me realize that it makes it much easier to be a strong person if you have friends that understand you, friends that are there for you.

Go ahead and burden us, baby. We’re here for you even if you get mad and stomp around a bit. We might even welcome it.


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