[[A few weeks ago, I asked Andrew Friedman, co-author of James Blake's recently published autobiography, Breaking Back, to write a post taking TennisWorld readers behind the curtain to see how such a collaboration occurs, and how the book gets written. Here are Andrew (aka Rolo Tomassi's) thoughts. James Blake opens his US Open quest today -- Pete]]

I’ve been reading The Courts of Babylon recently and was struck by a line from the introduction: “Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of tennis players at their homes,” writes our TennisWorld host, Peter Bodo. “These were often palatial residences, but they were often so new that they still smelled of paint."

Well, in describing my experience of collaborating with James Blake on the book Breaking Back, that line is as good a place to begin as any, because the first thing my nose detected when I walked into his house in Fairfield for our inaugural working session, just a few days before Christmas 2005, wasn’t fresh paint, or the leathery stank of just-unwrapped furniture, or any of the other olfactory oddities you might associate with an unlived-in home. Curiously enough, the first thing I inhaled was the buttery, sugary aroma of cookies right out of the oven, and the first thing I learned about James was that he had housemates: two young women, classic Connecticut blondes (platonic friends dating back to his high-school years), were standing in the open kitchen of his living room, giggling and baking cookies.

To put it mildly, this was not what I was expecting.

Not that I really knew what to expect: I’d never worked with an athlete before, and though I was and am a tennis junkie, the truth is that to me, James Blake used to be, more than anything, a verb. My buddies and I used his name to describe a shot in one of our matches, usually a go-for-broke forehand that took an opponent by surprise (e.g., “And then, we were in the middle of a crosscourt rally, when I just James Blaked it down the line.”)

Several years ago, I switched literary agents for one reason and one reason only: to go with a guy who could get me into position for a shot at a tennis project. It was a longshot, to say the least, because I’d never written anything but cookbooks, food articles, and a few half-novels that were gathering whatever the virtual equivalent of dust is on my Vaio’s hard drive. I selected an independent agent named David Black with deep roots into the sports world, who promised me, “I’ll whack away at this until something gives,” and proceeded to put my name out to a number of colleagues. Not much came of it, until three years later, when he received an email from Lisa Queen, who merchants books for IMG. He forwarded the email to me. This is all it said: “Would Andrew have any interest in writing the James Blake book?”

I was on the phone in a heartbeat, telling David that he had to get me a meeting. Weeks later, he did: with James’ mother, Betty Blake—familiar to me from her appearances in the players box on television—and Carlos Fleming, James’ agent at IMG, a real gentleman and, if I may say, an exceedingly well-dressed dude. (When I die, I want to come back as Carlos’ wardrobe.)

We met, it went well, and a few weeks later, a date was set for me and James to have a first interview at his home in Fairfield,Connecticut, to begin work on a book proposal. The timing and circumstances were less than ideal: the miserable holiday season transit strike had just ended, James would be flying in from Chicago on the morning we were to meet, he had to conduct a photo shoot for Nike during a portion of our interview, and I was leaving for vacation with my family the very next morning.

Nonetheless, I took a train up to Fairfield, and walked to James’ house. I rang the bell, and there he was: James Blake, in a sweatshirt and jeans. I’d not spent any extended time in the company of other professional athletes, but in my work as a food writer, I’d collaborated with a number of the best, most famous chefs in the US, and in a former career worked for a film producer and came face to face, quite often, with international superstars (one surreal afternoon I dropped in on a child’s second-birthday party and found myself scarfing down cake with Robin Williams and Jamie Lee Curtis). There’s an air that a lot of, maybe most, celebrities have, a sense that there’s a spotlight perpetually trained on them or, worse, that the world is their PA (Hollywood-speak for personal assistant). James has tremendous star presence on the court, but he doesn’t exude that kind of “look at me” vibe in intimate situations. And I mean that as a compliment.

We sold the project to a publisher just before the US Open last year. Over the next few months, I spent considerable time with James, though much of it was “virtual” – we did a lot of interviewing by phone and traded some of the longest emails I’ve ever been a part of. When he was around, like right after the 2006 Open, we did some in-person interviewing. But the schedule of a tennis player is something I never fully appreciated: the travel, photo shoots, interviews, personal appearances, and so on. It’s just endless.

If we’d had more time I’m sure we would’ve spent more of it together, but the publisher wanted to get the book out between Wimbledon and the US Open this summer, so we were dancing as fast as we could—we worked in Inside the Actor Studio fashion at first, covering James’ entire life and career chronologically, then decided what to really bear down on and cover in detail in the book. We talked by phone once or twice a week for one to two hours, and in the fall, when the Tour headed overseas, we traded notes (and then chapter drafts) by email: I’d try to time my transmissions to get to him right before international flights so he could work among the clouds, then hit the send button when he touched down, and put the thing back on my desk.

This might sound like an odd way to write a book, but James was very engaged (much more than I understand most athletes are with their books) and would actually take the time to throw in little side stories and joking commentary that made it feel like we were just gabbing on the phone.

One of the great perks of this job was that IMG arranged for a credential for me to attend the US Open. (It’s now in the possession of my tennis-obsessed son, who calls it his “tennis necklace.”) I used it to the max: coming out to the grounds to just watch practice sessions, or outer-court action. I also, of course, attended all of James’ matches: three with the J Block, one from the IMG suite, and one from the player’s box. (I was in the box the afternoon James had a much anticipated showdown with Thomas Berdych. Berdych was in a surly mood, failed to convert a ridiculous amount of break points, and James, who was really on his game that late-afternoon, basically rolled him. As the athletes shook hands, James’ coach, Brian Barker, turned around to those of us in the box and beamed. I’ll never forget it.)




One of the many things I learned about the tennis world while working on this book was that watching somebody you care about play a match can be excruciating, even when they’re winning. I’d come home to my apartment after some of James’ matches, even straight-set wins, make myself a Manhattan, and just sit there sipping it and trying to chill out.

James did well at the Open last year, making it to the quarterfinals, where he took a set off Federer for the first time in a four-set nailbiter that very nearly went five. After the match, I sat around an Ashe stadium suite with James’ friends and family and for several minutes everybody was just staring at each other, spent from the ups and downs of the night, or maybe of the past ten days. I barely knew any of them, but I felt plugged into what they were experiencing.

A few days later, the afternoon of the final, I trained it up to Fairfield and interviewed James again. He was in, I thought, surprisingly good spirits. We talked about some of the most difficult stuff in the book—his father’s last days, and the long months with zoster.

I saw him again five days later in his hotel room in midtown Manhattan just hours before he and his teammates would take off for Davis Cup in Moscow. We had a funny exchange: I was in a suit and tie because I was going to take my wife to lunch that day, a thank-you for all the solo child-care she provided to basically enable me to spend two weeks at the National Tennis Center.

I guess athletes associate suits with offices because even though he knew I was a freelance writer, James—who had used my call from the lobby as his alarm clock and was still in a pre-caffeinated state—looked my suit up and down and reflexively asked me if I had come from work. “If I was coming from work,” I said, “I’d be in my underwear.” (That’s a little joke for all the writers in the house.)

I did not see James again until December, although we again traded extremely long emails.

The holiday season was a hoot: I saw James at a few benefit events, hung out a bit with him in the after hours, and meet some tennis legends, including Jim Courier, John McEnroe, and Patrick McEnroe, who granted me an interview just days before he headed off to Australia for the first slam of the year.James and I delivered the manuscript shortly after the Australian Open at the end of January, and as quickly as my time in Blake World had begun, it came to an end. We traded, and still trade, emails here and there, comparing notes on the work of our very talented editor, Matt Harper, congratulating each other on the day of the official publication, stuff like that.

The book’s been out for almost two months now, and as we’re smack-dab in the middle of the US Open, I find myself experiencing some déjà vu, remembering this time last year, when I was interviewing not only James, but also his mother, brother, high school and college friends, and others. James has often said that one of the reasons he wanted to do the book was to celebrate the people who helped him get where he is and I must say that, even though I spent limited time in their presence, those people had an impact on me as well, especially James’ mother, and his coach, Brian Barker.

Strangely enough, the person I think of most is the one I never met: James’ late father. Thomas Blake, Sr. was so vividly described by James, his friends, and his family, that I felt like I knew him. Still, I had never even heard the man’s voice, so I asked Carlos if his office might have some footage of him. Turns out that they had a thirty-minute interview with James’ parents shot back in 2001, and told me they’d burn me a copy. I waited for the DVD to show up with almost obsessive anticipation. When it arrived, I ran upstairs and popped it in: there was James’ dad, just months after James exploded onto the national stage via that notorious match with Lleyton Hewitt at the 2001 US Open, the proudest father you ever saw, talking about his son, and about how he and his wife, Betty, raised him and Thomas, Jr.

I admire the Blakes and the priorities they instilled in their sons. I admire Mr. Blake’s famed discipline, and I admire the fact that James has maintained a “normal” life in Fairfield to balance the often surreal one he leads most of the time—how appropriate that my first impression of him was formed as the smell of freshly baked Christmas cookies hung in the air around us.

My twin children were two-years old while I was working on this book. My son, Declan, seems to have a natural talent for tennis. He just turned three, and he can actually hit a decent forehand and a sweet, natural, two-handed backhand. Flipping through the pages of Breaking Back, he came across a picture of James hitting a tennis ball at age four or five.

“That’s me!” he shouted.  “He play tennis like me!”

I don’t know if he’ll keep playing tennis; this time last year, all he wanted to do was kick a soccer ball. But if he does stay with my favorite sport, I doubt we’ll ever send him to an academy, and the Blakes are a big reason I already feel that way. The emphasis they placed on off-court pursuits, I think, resulted in a most unusual professional athlete. Mrs. Blake would likely be surprised to learn that she and her husband inspired one of my daily rituals with my son: when we’re on the court, I pause every few minutes to ask, “Do you want to do something else? Wanna go on the swings?”

He usually says no. He wants to keep hitting. Eventually, I make him stop. There’s nothing that would make me happier than for my son to love tennis. But there’s more to life, especially right now. I’ve always known that intellectually, but, strangely enough, it was working on my first tennis book that really brought the truth of it home.

--- Andrew Friedman (aka Rolo Tomassi)