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A chat with James Blake
by Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

James Blake's 2001 will be remembered for his role in the Lleyton Hewitt Did-He-or-Didn't-He? racial incident at the U.S. Open. This is both a blessing and a curse. By taking the high road, comporting himself with poise, and nobly giving Hewitt the benefit of the doubt, Blake became something of a media darling. Already regarded as one of the most affable players on the ATP Tour, he was hailed by no less than Andre Agassi for "teaching us something about class."

But L'Affaire Lleyton obscured Blake's emergence from journeyman status to a credible player with real talent. Two years after leaving Harvard to turn pro, he improved his ranking nearly 150 spots in 2001, from No. 223 to 88. Not only did he have Hewitt on the ropes in Flushing, but he won 13 matches in just nine events, banked nearly $200,000 in prize money and played a starring role in the U.S. Davis Cup win over India. At age 22, Blake burns bright as a prospect. (He's still working on the "fearful symmetry" part.) Before heading to Australia, where he will receive his first main-draw "automatic in" at a Grand Slam, he chatted casually with CNNSI.com.

CNNSI.com: Through Wimbledon of 2001, you had won, I believe, three ATP matches in your career. Then you go to Newport, reach the semis and finish the year in the top 100. What happened? Did you break up with Xavier Malisse?

James Blake: Yeah, that's what it was. No, I just concentrated a little more and, it sounds like a cliché, but I played my game. Even though the wins weren't necessarily coming, I felt pretty good all year and sort of had faith that I'd break through eventually.

CNNSI.com: Was there one turning point, any one match that served as an epiphany?

Blake: I beat [2001 Australian Open finalist] Arnaud Clément in Cincinnati. He was top 10 at the time, it was on a hard court on a hot day. Also, I had a wild card into that tournament, so any time you get a wild card it's nice to show that it was well-deserved. I lost to Pat Rafter in the next match but played him pretty well. He had some really nice things to say to me afterward -- "A couple points make all the difference, but you definitely have the game," that kind of thing. I left that tournament feeling really good about things.

CNNSI.com: In the grand tradition of the Mailbag's top-five lists, give us your five favorite tournaments.

Blake: 1) Australia -- Melbourne. 2) The Open: Because it's close to home [Fairfield, Conn.]. 3) Hawaii, which is a challenger. Can I name ones that don't exist any more?

CNNSI.com: Sure.

Blake: 4) New Haven: It was close to home, too. 5) Boston: I went to school there.

CNNSI.com: So Lleyton Hewitt wins the Masters Cup. He finishes No. 1 in the world, the youngest player ever to do so. But here in the States, this news is totally buried, gets less coverage than the Stihl Timbersports Series they show after the World's Strongest Man Competition. What can men's tennis do to break through a little bit in terms of publicity?

Blake: It's funny because tennis is a big deal everywhere, it seems, but the States. You go overseas and it's huge. In Australia, I'm sure Hewitt winning was big news. I think [the ATP] needs to do a better job of marketing all the players, not just the top guys. I mean, there are some amazing stories out there. Guys in the top 100 are all amazingly talented and most, if not all, are cool, intelligent, down-to-earth, interesting. But it seems that the only players you hear about are the top five, maybe top 10. The announcers don't help. Whenever they do a match and a seed is playing a qualifier, they're like, "Oh, this guy came up from the qualies. He's no good." Instead of that, why not talk about what an achievement it is for this guy to get to where he is, how men's tennis is exciting because guys from qualies can pull off upsets? The other thing, too, is that there haven't been top Americans since Pete and Andre. As guys like Andy Rod! di! ck and Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish and hopefully myself break through, I think Americans will be more interested again.

CNNSI.com: You hear that all the time, but do you really think American sports fans are so shallow that they're incapable of rooting for players unless they're American?

Blake: No, not necessarily. But I think it helps.

CNNSI.com: Speaking of Lleyton Hewitt ...

Blake: [Sigh.]

CNNSI.com: Come on, you knew it was coming. Now that the statute of limitations has lapsed, be honest: You could have kicked his butt that day if you had wanted to, right?

Blake: I should have. Then I might have won the match. He's just so tough when--

CNNSI.com: You don't have to do that spin. You hate the guy, right?

Blake: No. Really.

CNNSI.com: Let's move on. I hear you recently signed with IMG models. What does it feel like to be the only person who attended Harvard and has a modeling career?

Blake: Well, I just started. It was one of those things where my agent [IMG's Carlos Fleming] thought it might be good for me, and I'm only doing it on the side, nothing that will interfere with my tennis. It's fun, but, man, it's weird. You're sitting there and they're like, "Oh, I wish he'd smiled more for this," or, "His chin looks bad in these shots." It's really harsh. You're like, "Uh, I'm right here, you know. I can hear every word you guys are saying." I think that's why so many models are [screwed] up. People are right there in front of your face saying you're ugly or you look fat. That's one good thing about tennis: The worst thing they can say is that your forehand is ugly. I can live with that.

CNNSI.com: In the weeks after the Davis Cup tie against India, you were in Tyler, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn., playing challengers. For a guy like you who gets a taste of the big time but still needs to play some smaller events to get the points and the matches, how do you avoid a letdown?

Blake: I just look at it as another challenge. When you play those matches, you're not feeding off the crowd or a national television audience. But if the only times you get up for tennis are when you're playing in a Grand Slam or on TV, you're not going to have much of a career. Working your way up and winning matches when you're in a smaller environment or when the conditions aren't necessarily ideal, it's all part of the process.

CNNSI.com: Who's your best friend on tour?

Blake: Well, my brother [Thomas] when he's playing. Otherwise, probably Mardy Fish.

CNNSI.com: What's the last book you read?

Blake: Confederacy of Dunces.

CNNSI.com: Britney or J-Lo?

Blake: Probably ... wait, can I say Mandy Moore?

CNNSI.com: Big Mac or Whopper?

Blake: I don't eat either.

CNNSI.com: Dunster House or--

Blake: Mather.

CNNSI.com: Wilson or Penn?

Blake: Penn.

CNNSI.com: Serena or Venus?

Blake: Serena.

CNNSI.com: Pete or Andre?

Blake: To hang with or as a player?

CNNSI.com: Hang with.

Blake: Andre.

CNNSI.com: Seriously, what can we expect from you in 2002?

Blake: I don't really have a firm ranking goal. I just want to keep building on last year, playing more consistently. At this level, everyone can play well. It's just a question of doing it at the right time.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com. Click here to send a question to his Tennis Mailbag.
 

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great interview :)

Good luck in Australia James!
 

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Wow. He's a model too now. I read something about that in a tennis magazine. His agency is the same one as Tyra Banks and Giselle Bundchen. :cool: (I still think the 'fro has got to go though. ;))
 

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he's great, i really like him!...a new fav now!

i first saw him against hewitt at the us open, but i am not the biggest fan of lleyton so that overshadowed the match.

but against koubek yesterday (the little of the coverage they showed) i found his game very good, both wings are strong but more so the backhand and he is good at the net and he is good-looking:)...but he needs to work on his stamina and fitness as he did look very tired at the end.

and that is a good interview as well!
 
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