Comeback Kid James Blake

James Blake Talks To <b>Mike Wallace</b> About Life's Challenges

This is a story of a remarkable young tennis player. He is one of the best in the country, one of the best in the world, and he got there despite a series of catastrophes that almost killed him. It is also a classic improbable story about the power of positive thinking.

Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.



Two years ago, James Blake was hot. Hot on the court, where his blistering speed had him racing up the rankings, and hot off the court after People magazine named him the world's sexiest athlete.

He had signed a modeling contract, had a photo spread in G.Q., and one in Teen Vogue. On buses and billboards he appeared larger than life.

Then his life almost ended.

Net posts are made of solid steel. And in Italy early last year, James was racing toward the net to return a drop shot when he lost his balance and slammed head-first into a steel post. The impact broke his neck.

"It didn't move at all. It didn't budge and I did," James remembers.

His coach Brian Barker saw it happen. "He was running full blast. His foot catches and he goes head-first into the net post as hard as you could hit. There's a loud sound. He goes down hard. He's laying on the ground. And my heart sank. I was scared to death. I looked at him. I gave him kind of a dumb question. I said, 'Are you OK?' And he just whispered, 'I can't breathe,' " recalls Barker.

He had knocked the wind out of himself and broken his neck, but to hear James tell it, he was actually quite lucky.

"As soon as I kind of felt myself airborne, I turned my head a little to the side and hit my neck instead of hitting straight on my head," he says. "And I was unbelievably lucky because the doctor said with as hard as I hit it, if it had hit the top of my head, I probably would never be walking again."

What was he thinking, as he lay on the clay in Rome?

"Just every thought went through my mind. Could this be a broken neck? Could I have just ended my tennis career? Have I played my last match? And also, thinking about the scoliosis I have," James says.

Scoliosis is a curvature of the back that James had suffered from. For five years as a teenager, he had to wear a full-length back brace 18 hours a day, though not while playing tennis. In the Italian hospital, because of the scoliosis, doctors thought he might also have broken his back.

Two days after the accident, James was transferred to another hospital for tests, still wearing his tennis clothes because he was too injured for them to be removed. "I was still covered in clay," he says. "I stunk. It was a low point in my life. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I knew I was seriously hurt, but I also knew that I looked ridiculous. So, I decided to laugh.

"I was so fortunate. My coach, Brian Barker was there. He said, 'We got two options. We can laugh about this or we can cry about this.' And I immediately said, 'Let's laugh. Let's just kind of joke about it and hope that everything turns out all right. But if it doesn't, I've got to find a way to still be happy with it.' "

Barker, too, remembers the exchange. "And he said, 'We might as well laugh because you know, it's pretty funny that a tennis player of my level with his coach standing right in front of him could run and go head-first into a net post.' He's like, 'There's got to be something funny about this when we look back.' And he said, 'So right now we'll just kind of suck it up and make the best of it.'"

Against the advice of his Italian doctors, James flew back to his home in Connecticut, near his parents' house.

His neck was in a brace and he was in horrific pain, but leave it to James to find a silver lining.

He once said breaking his neck was the "luckiest thing" that ever happened to him. "It was definitely the best thing that happened to me. It ended up being the last six weeks of my father's life, so I got to be here to spend a lot of time with him."

His dad, Tom Blake, had been a sales manager at 3M, but at age 57 he was losing his life to stomach cancer.

James says he didn't know the extent of his dad's illness. "He's an extremely proud man and that's why I'm so lucky that I did hurt myself the way I did because I'm sure he wouldn't have told me how bad it was becoming and how serious it was," he says. "My plan was to be over in Europe that whole time, and so I might not have made it home at all. And I'm lucky I came home and I learned a lot more about life and just about my dad, and about everything."

His father first got him interested in tennis. Tom and Betty Blake met on a tennis court and later took James and his older brother Thomas with them whenever they played.

"I think they were too cheap to pay for a babysitter so they brought us up to the tennis courts and soon as they were done they would toss us a few balls. We just loved it right away," remembers James.

  • Daniel Schorn

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