Former James Blake Coach Brian Barker’s Memories Of Federer


For my future book about Roger Federer, coach Brian Barker discussed his memories of the Swiss Maestro relating to his former player James Blake. He also talks about what he thinks were the finest performances of Blake’s very successful ATP career. I ran into Barker at the U.S. Open near the Ashe Stadium fountain, where he was on his way to watch Blake’s late afternoon match. He shared these memories…

“Federer played some unbelievable matches against James. They played in the finals of Indian Wells. The level that Federer played was just off the charts. And he was just overwhelming with his forehand and backhand. And also James played him in the finals of Shanghai. It was one of those days where Federer was hitting, obviously his forehand, extremely explosive and big. He was also hitting his backhand with that kind of force. And moving James all over the court.”

“Those two matches stick out in my mind. I remember saying to James after he played him in Shanghai – James was like, What was I supposed to do when he plays like that? – I don’t know if there’s much you can do. And Federer said after, that it was ‘one of the better matches I played.’ When he plays like that – possibly the best player that ever played – playing his best tennis, is kind of tough.”

Question: What was the strategy to beat Federer at the Athens Olympics in 2004? What happened there?

Barker: “Well, James’ strategy against most players, including Federer, is to move people and for James to try to get a lot of forehands himself. To try to play aggressive, not make it into a touch match or a finesse match. On that day James was was just really on top of his game, seeing the ball as big as he ever has. And Federer, for sure, was a little bit off that day. Not playing quite his best. James kept rushing him, so it just went his way for the two sets.”

Question: What do you think were the greatest performances of James’ career, the best matches he ever played?

Barker: “I think at Shanghai when James made the top 6 in 2006, he played Nadal first round in round robin and beat him in straight sets. That was one of the best matches that he’d ever played. He beat Nadal two times before that. Once at the U.S. Open and played really well. Then at Indian Wells, the semis, he played really well. Nadal came out guns blazing that match and James played absolutely his best tennis to fend him off in straight sets. Then probably the semis of Shanghai that year when he played Nalbandian. And he won in pretty convincing manner, in straight sets. Those were two of the better matches James ever played.”

Question: Did you ever have any personal interaction with Federer through the years?

Barker: “James would practice with him, so yeah, certainly here and there, just talk to him and say hello. And shootin’ the breeze. One conversation with Federer, when he was just a young kid, not ranked very high in the world. And we were in Indianapolis. I remember we were watching golf on TV. And he was saying how lucky these pro golfers are, they go to beautiful places, they get to do something that they love. And they get to make money doing something they love. In some of the nicest places in the world. And he said, ‘These guys are just so lucky.’ And to myself I was thinking: ‘Yeah, you’re lucky.'”

“And then two minutes later he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? It’s like kind of like us. Like, we’re so lucky. We have this perfect life where we get to do what we love to do, in these great places. And we’re really lucky (with) this life that we have.’ I remember thinking: This is just such a nice kid with a good perspective. And a good head on his shoulders. And he just understands life and how lucky he is. How is life fits in with everything else. I just remember thinking this kid’s gonna do really well. And he’s gonna be happy with whatever he does, whatever it is. And he has just such a great attitude.”



  • Dan Markowitz · September 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Nice story about Barker recalling Federer talking about how lucky he was with being a pro tennis player. I really feel that if one has that perspective, that they are very lucky with their flight in life, than they will not only be more successful, they’ll also be happier.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Yes I was impressed by Barker’s tennis acumen and those insights on Federer. THis was the first time I ever interviewed him. I think he deserves a lot of credit for helping form Blake to be the great player he became as a top ATP pro.

  • adb · September 29, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I saw both the semi in which Blake defeated Nadal (to my surprise and delight), and the next afternoon, in which Fed defeated Blake. They were astounding matches.

    When Blake gave his finalist speech, he referenced his accident (in Rome, I think), when he cracked a vertebra when he hit a net post. He said he’d received one card from a fellow player, and that player was Roger Federer.

    The stadium audience applauded; Roger just nodded a quiet acknowledgement and smiled. What a glorious day!

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Great story ADB, thanks for sharing. It really captures the class of Federer. Might have thought some of the other American players or others might well wish Blake from that horrendous injury. Federer really is special in so many ways.

  • adb · September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Thanks, Scoop. Let me elucidate a bit and add a bit of color commentary. I was surrounded by hard-core ‘America First!’ fans, who were visibly irritated by my cheering for Fed. Received lots of ‘cold shoulders,’ and some sarcastic remarks. Especially when a running forehand cross-court landed smack on the line and all the patriots insisted it was out. Called in. Major grumbling. I took some solace in understanding that these ‘American First’ fans were at least rooting for an African American, given the history of some of the tournament’s fans. (Ref: Williams sisters).

    When Roger, after acknowledging the crowd on court, returned to his chair to await the trophy presentation, he did his usual on hard courts: bent over, chest to knees, and simultaneously unlaced and loosened his shoes, then sat back, stretched his legs straight in front of him, and crossed his ankles. Folded his arms across his lower chest. That was his physical attitude when he respectfully listened to Blake’s capitulation/congratulatory speech and acknowledged Federer’s (and Mirka’s) thoughtfulness. And he mentioned that they were in the middle of a big tournament, and they still delivered a ‘Get Well Soon’ message to him. Roger simply nodded in James’ direction and smiled; he didn’t change a thing in physical attitude. He did not acknowledge the huge applause. And he didn’t reference his prior graciousness when he accepted the (what was then) the Pacific Life whale trophy.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 30, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks adb I very much enjoy your observations from this post match. Fed’s true colors came out in this moment. Always enjoyed the custom of trophy presentations. The most memorable were when Roger when his first Wimbledon and couldn’t contain the tears, that was really a touching moment. Also the time when Serena and Fish won Hopman Cup and Serena did not think to thank her partner in her victory speech which Fish kind of joked about but you could tell he was somewhat embarrassed by the snub. This was about six years ago, before Fish got his act together and really became the top player he is now. Thanks again adb, I’d like to include your memory into my Federer book if that’s okay with you.



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