There's no�way to sugarcoat it: 2004 was a very bad year for James Blake. In May, during a practice session for the Italian Open, he tripped and fell headfirst into a net post, suffering a broken neck that left him in a brace for six weeks. Two months later his father, Thomas, died after a yearlong battle with stomach cancer. Later in July, Blake--who was ranked 43rd on the ATP Tour when he was injured in Rome--contracted zoster, a virus that impaired his vision and hearing and temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face.
Blake put those harrowing experiences behind him on Sunday when he won the Pilot Pen title in New Haven, Conn., near his childhood home in Fairfield. It was his second career win; the other came in 2002. "At the beginning of the year I probably wouldn't have won a match like this," the unseeded Blake, 25, said after beating fifth seed Feliciano Lopez. "You never know if you're going to be back to where you were before you got injured."
Blake, the nation's top-ranked college player in 1999, when he was at Harvard, has been healthy since last January, and his world ranking has risen from 210 to 49 this year. The Pilot win was a confidence boost heading into the U.S Open; he entered as a wild card and was scheduled to face Greg Rusedski on Tuesday. "This is a great exclamation point," he said on Sunday. "But in my mind, I've been back."