James Blake: Life is what happens while you make other plans

James Blake has a best selling book and an 18-4 record in semifinals. What’s not to like?

James Blake came out firing and got three break points on Hyung-Taik Lee early in the first set of their semifinal match at the Countrywide Classic here in Los Angeles. Blake lost that game. In fact he lost the next eight points and then his serve to go down 1-3. In the next game, Blake hit two gorgeous winners and now you know what it’s like hanging with James Blake. Feast or famine you could call it.

Did he lose his serve because he’s a bomber and bombers are notoriously inconsistent or was he discouraged that he let a three break points fall through his hands? Here’s the answer: if Blake drops his shoulders, he’s discouraged and when he does that, his opponent immediately perks up and digs in.

Given this proclivity, I was surprised to learn that Blake had a17-4 record in ATP semifinals coming into this match. It leads one to wonder why he has such a sterling semifinal record and such a terrible five set record – 0-9. I can think of a few reasons for this.

Five set matches are much longer so it’s a lot harder for a bomber to keep his high risk shots in the court. Just ask Roger Federer. When he plays Rafael Nadal on clay, he has to go for winners because Nadal is the ultimate baseliner. That’s hard to do over five sets.

A five set match also gives Blake a lot more opportunities to get discouraged against those grinders who play good defense and like to keep the ball in play. They lie in waiting for your big forehand to go off and when it does, they’re smart enough to step in and apply more pressure. Vince Spadea is very good at this. A big reason he’s still in the top 75 after 14 years on the tour.

Blake lost the second set to Lee and, much as he did against Paul Goldstein in the second round, kept firing away and got a break late in the third set and served out the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

As I said I would, I asked Blake what his coach Brian Barker says to him after a match in which he’s had a letdown such as the Wimbledon match against Max Mirnyi last year where he lost the last two sets badly. After that particular match, Barker reminded him the score was misleading because “his serve went off” and they talked about how to fix that. Then he told Blake to to keep his head up and remember that it only takes a few shots to turn things around.

I asked Blake this question because Pam Shriver said that Blake’s camp doesn’t tackle his mental letdowns head on. It’s an unspoken subject. Who knows what goes on behind closed locker doors but hearing Blake’s comments over the past years and looking at that quote above, I agree with her. Barker talks about the mental side, of course, but he doesn’t appear to challenge Blake directly about a part of his game that is holding him back. I’m not sure how a score is misleading if you’re serve goes off. The serve is one part of the game Blake has total control over.

Bill Simons of Inside Tennis asked Blake about a quote in his new book, Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life, which debuted at number 22 on the New York Times best seller list. The quote is from John Lennon and goes like this: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Blake said he chose the quote because he gets upset with people who fall into the trap of thinking that a promotion or new relationship or a top ten ranking will make their life perfect rather than stepping back and saying, “Right now, there’s nothing wrong with the way things are going.” He prefers to appreciate what happened today and be happy with that,

For now, everything is rosy – he’s in the final – and even if it’s not, Blake will find a way to appreciate that. He might even get a best selling book out of it.

I’m still waiting for his book to arrive but if you’ve read it, leave a review in the comments section.

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Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California
Safin, Nalbandian, and Gonzalez Hit the Wall
James Blake Survives Goldstein and Spadea