by Rusty Hall/DMN
The first time James Blake played in the Challenger of Dallas in 1999, he was a young talent working his way up the ranks of professional tennis.
When he returns this week to T Bar M Racquet Club, he will have climbed to the top of the tennis world, reaching No. 4 in the world with victories over the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He also helped the United States win a Davis Cup title in 2007, has won 10 ATP singles titles and reached the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
But that's only half of the James Blake story.
Along the way, he's broken his neck tumbling into a net post on a clay court in Rome in 2004, lost his father to cancer and experienced a debilitating illness that lasted for months, all of which is chronicled in his bestselling book, Breaking Back.
And more recently, Blake, 33, has been working his way back from right knee surgery that has him ranked No. 121.
Blake joins a strong Challenger of Dallas field this week that includes 21-year ATP veteran and
four- time Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Knowles, two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson, defending champion Jesse Levine and past champions Ryan Sweeting and Alex Bogomolov.
For Blake, the Dallas event is a chance to pick up where he left off last summer after winning a challenger event in California, then reaching the third round at the U.S. Open in September.
"[The comeback's] going fine," Blake said from Jacksonville, Fla., where he is in the broadcast booth for this weekend's first-round Davis Cup match between the United States and Brazil. "I didn't have a great Australian Open [losing in the second round of qualifying to American Donald Young]. I only gave myself that one chance there, and I had that one bad match.
"But I feel great. My body is reacting well and I'm happy to be back on the court. Hopefully, I'll be playing at a pretty high level this week."
￼￼Blake said tennis is still his priority and he's not ready to move into the broadcast booth full time.
"I think the biggest difference now is the time it takes to train the way I need to train," he said. "I was so used to training at a breakneck pace, and now it's hard to train as hard as I used to without my body breaking down. We'll just see how long I'm able to continue doing this.
"I enjoy it still, and I'd like to keep doing it as long as I can. The travel is definitely getting old, but I'm still enjoying all the other parts of it -- the competition and the camaraderie and just going out there with a purpose and trying to get better."
One of the reasons the travel is getting harder is his new family. He married longtime girlfriend Emily in November and the two have a 7-month-old daughter, Riley.
"As most parents know, it's tough to leave your little one home and leave your wife at home," Blake said. "I'm lucky that they are going to travel with me to Dallas, and then to San Jose. That's going to help a lot."
Blake said he's excited to be back and playing in Dallas after so many years. He was entered in the Dallas Tennis Classic in Irving last year, but his knee started acting up the week before and he had to pull out.
"[The Challenger of Dallas] works out well because I need to get matches, plain and simple," Blake said. "I was doing well toward the end of the summer last year, then took a little time off to get married and now I want to get matches and play. Hopefully, I'll get a few matches in -- not just one or two -- and get things going in the right direction."
The right direction would be heading back up in the rankings.
"The ranking needs to come back, but with my health being good, that's my first concern," Blake said.