Look of a Winner
James Blake is thriving
at tennis and modeling
By SAM BORDEN
Daily News Sports Writer
hen James Blake was 18, it was his brain that led him to Harvard. When James Blake turned 20, it was his arms and legs that propelled him onto the ATP tour. Now that James Blake is 22, it's his face that has carried him in front of the camera.
James Blake kneels after giving up a point to Taylor Dent at yesterday's Hall of Fame Championships.
He is young, black and proud unashamed to be playing a game that is historically white, unabashed about posing while the flashbulbs flicker. He grew up in Yonkers and Fairfield, Conn., learned tennis in Harlem, went to class in Boston and won his very first ATP Tour match in this seaside town three years ago.
He returned here for the Hall of Fame Championships as the tournament's top seed but not before doing a photo shoot for the September issue of Vogue magazine the day before he arrived. Blake made it all the way to the final, but yesterday lost to fellow American Taylor Dent, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
It is something of a novelty for a male tennis player to double as a model, but so too is it a novelty for an African-American to crack the top 50. Blake is the first to do so since MaliVai Washington, who was named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 1994.
"The fact that he's African-American and the fact that he went to Harvard makes him something to talk about," says Chris Forberg, head of the men's division of IMG Models, the agency that represents Blake. "It's funny, because 99% of the athletes just aren't good-looking enough to pull it off. But he is."
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The comparisons to the Williams sisters are natural. Blake's father Tom, like Richard Williams, was a tennis player in fact, that is how he met James' mother Betty, who is white and British. The Williamses and Blake share an agent, Carlos Fleming, and Blake also has a tennis sibling older brother Thomas, who has struggled with injuries but is trying to make it on the tour as well.
But Blake does not have the results the sisters have he has yet to win an ATP event and has made just two tournament finals though he plays the same role as an ambassador to younger black fans.
"There are definitely some people at certain tournaments that might not have been there if I wasn't there," Blake says.
And now a new comparison has sprung up. The world sees Blake in designer suits, in chic casual wear, even with his 6-1, 170-pound frame lying prone across a haystack in the back of semi truck.
Much like Anna Kournikova, Blake has found less fame on the court than in the camera's eye.
"The one thing we've always tried to avoid is the Anna Kournikova phenomenon," says Fleming. "We've never overplayed the fact that he's a handsome guy. That speaks for itself. You're never going to see him do any outrageous stuff, because that's not his personality."
Blake vigorously maintains that his modeling is secondary to his tennis. Although he signed with Fleming in 1999, he didn't join IMG Models until October 2001, waiting until he had established himself on the tour.
"Jim Courier was the first one who told me that he got a whole lot better looking that first time he won the French Open," says Blake, "and he got even better looking each time he won a major after that."
Blake has already appeared in Teen Vogue and Ocean Drive, and will model Nike's new McEnroe line later this year, which includes non-tennis clothing. Forberg said that IMG has had "plenty of bites from major designers" about Blake, but has been unable to follow through on many of them because of the restrictions in Blake's contract with Nike.
"All we want to do is help him raise his profile," Forberg says. "We'd like to put him in magazines that he wouldn't otherwise be in."
It has been almost a year since Lleyton Hewitt made a racially insensitive remark about a black linesman during a U.S. Open match with Blake, which was the first time that Blake's name found its way into the national headlines. Blake anticipates playing in Flushing again next month, and hopes he makes news for more traditional reasons.
"I really didn't want to make it on SportsCenter for the first time on the other side of a controversy like that," he said.
His diplomatic reaction to Hewitt earned him praise for his demeanor, but since then he has been intent on making news for reasons other than his skin color. His powerful forehand is highly-regarded on tour and his speed on court is admired "If I was as fast as James, I'd be in good shape," said Dent.
Blake is currently ranked 35th, is a perfect 5-0 in Davis Cup matches for the USA and made his first ATP tournament final earlier this year in Memphis. At Wimbledon, he dropped an excruciating second-round match to Richard Krajicek, losing 11-9 in the fifth set.
So far, that first title has eluded him, but Blake claims that his outside interests have little to do with it.
"Tennis is an individual sport and that works for some people, but it doesn't work for me," he says. "It's not my philosophy. I think if I thought about tennis all the time, I'd actually get worse."
So he doesn't. And at least one former tennis pro thinks there's nothing wrong with that.
"You know what, the Anna Kournikova phenomenon is not a bad thing at all," says Washington, who became friends with Blake after losing to him here in 1999. "It's great for tennis, it's great for Anna's bank account and what's wrong with that? I think it's terrific James can cross over to non-sports related stuff. I think he realizes he's been blessed with some assets and not everyone can cross over into that arena."
Despite his agents' hopes of raising his profile, Blake still travels in relative obscurity "If I don't shave, people confuse me with Lenny Kravitz sometimes," he confesses and should he suddenly start getting mobbed in malls, there are plenty of mechanisms available to keep him grounded.
"Every once in awhile we'll give him some stuff, keep his head from getting too big," says brother Thomas, who also pointed out that although people confuse him with James, he has not gotten any modeling offers of his own. "People say we look alike. But I guess not."
The ribbing is not confined to Thomas or his parents (his mother calls his dreadlocks "worms on my head," among other things), since Blake hears plenty in the locker room, too.
He doesn't mind, though. He's happy enough to be playing tennis each day, dreaming of the time when he'll face now-No. 1 Hewitt again and beat him with no controversy to cloud the match.
And then off to do a GQ cover?
"If I'm not too old and wrinkly and bald and gray, maybe," he says. "If people still want to take my picture, that would be fine with me."
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Countdown to U.S. Open
When: Aug. 26 thru Sept. 8
Where: National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows
Defending Champs: Lleyton Hewitt & Venus Williams
Ticket Info: www.usopen.org
Original Publication Date: 7/15/02