Tennis Forum banner

1 - 20 of 20 Posts

·
Registered
Joined
·
2,282 Posts
Discussion Starter #1
My - My - My. To say the least?



PRO GAME: James Blake: The Quiet American

4/25/03 0:01 AM


Armed with determination, charisma, and a keen grasp of the game, James Blake has only one question left to answer: Does he have the guns--and guts--to win Grand Slam tournaments?

By Thomas Hackett

Photo by Ron Angle

Excerpted from the May 2003 issue of TENNIS Magazine

It’s a little thing, I realize, and I don’t want to make too much of it. But within minutes of my arrival at the court where James Blake is practicing, near his home in Tampa, Fla., he stops the drill to introduce himself. He bounds over to the low fence with such enthusiasm that I’m thinking we’re going to high-five. Instead, we shake and he politely tells me his name—as if I didn’t know.

This is just not something celebrity athletes do, and whether Blake likes it or not, that is just what the dreadlocked dude with the box-office smile has become. Usually, celebrities let you hang back and wait for just the right moment to scamper up and infringe on their precious time. That’s the way it works. Apparently nobody gave Blake the celebrity manual.

Blake, 23, asks how I’m doing. He apologizes for being tied up, explaining that he’s supposed to hit the weight room next, and hopes I don’t mind waiting just a little while longer. A couple of times he says, “I hope that’s OK.”

Actually, it’s perfectly OK by me. It’s the middle of winter. I’m in Florida, at the swank Saddlebrook Resort-Tampa. Take all the time you want, James. Take a week. I’ll be at the pool, the man in the kimono, drinking the margarita, chatting up Miss Jennifer Capriati—who, I notice, is playing on the next court over.

“Ah!” says a Chicago woman who’d been mooning at the side of the court until Blake nodded hello to her. “I love that smile!”

Unfortunately, Blake is a man of his word. He retrieves me a few hours later and we duck into a strip mall to buy sandwiches to go. Then we head over to the house Blake shares with his older brother, Tom, 26 and also a pro player, in a new, nondescript subdivision featuring homes chosen from just two or three configurations. We enter through a cluttered garage and then into a kitchen that needs cleaning. Blake apologizes again, this time because the place is a mess.

“I’d like to say it’s not usually this bad,” he says, taking in the piles of dishes, clothes, CDs, Victoria’s Secret catalogs and back issues of Maxim as if they belonged to someone else. “But it is.”

If Blake’s sense of interior decoration seems undeveloped—the empty bookshelves, the bare walls, the lame attempt at a bar—I have to remember that (a) he’s only 23, (b) like most players, he’s almost never home, (c) his career as a homemaker, like his love life, is going to be on hold for a while, and (d) he’s been busy exceeding expectations, including his own, by breaking through the pack of American hopefuls and cracking the Top 25. But it would also be a mistake to confuse the feeble furnishings with a lack of substance in Blake himself.

Most tennis players you can pretty well sum up with a description of their games and a few words about their hobbies. Their talents revealed before they could see over the net, they live like athletic versions of Tibetan lamas. Taken from their families, reared in monastic isolation, they often grow up believing themselves the next incarnation of some champion who, inconveniently, isn’t actually dead.

“A lot of these guys, they don’t have an identity outside tennis,” Blake says. “You always hear that if you don’t have that obsession, that if you don’t eat, drink, and sleep tennis, you’re never going to get to that top level. But for every Lleyton Hewitt, there’s going to be ten thousand other kids who don’t really know what to do or who they are outside tennis. All they’ve ever thought about is themselves. School is a non-issue. They don’t really have friends.”

The phone has been ringing since we stepped in the door, and Blake pauses to punch through the missed calls, afraid he’s blowing someone off.

“That’s why I’m so glad I was a normal kid,” he says, pausing to wolf down some of his sandwich. “I went to a normal public high school in [Fairfield] Connecticut, I went down and played tennis in Harlem every weekend, I had normal, non-tennis-playing friends and did all the ordinary high-school stuff like going to the prom and partying on weekends.”

But Blake also understands that his ordinariness, like everything else about him, gets attention mainly because he happens to hit a tennis ball extraordinarily well—well enough to invite comparisons to another champion: Arthur Ashe. Fair and forthright, Ashe is remembered for far more than his three Grand Slam titles. He was, if not the last gentleman in tennis, then certainly one of its most distinguished.

With so few African-American men on the tour, comparisons to Ashe are inevitable. In Blake’s case, though, the similarity goes beyond skin color and quiet competitiveness to the heart of his character. Like Ashe, Blake seems to be decent, dignified, and quietly determined.


For most tennis fans, those qualities came into focus during the second round of the 2001 U.S. Open, in a match that Blake lost on court but won in every other way. Then ranked 95th in the world, Blake was playing the best tennis of his life when Hewitt, in the course of questioning a call, made the now infamous remark about the “similarity” between Blake and an African-American linesman. Hewitt thereby made an issue of something that had never been much of one in Blake’s life or career, his race. Blake heard what Hewitt said, and so did nearly everyone else in the stadium. They practically begged Blake to take offense.

“My reaction was to try to win the match, not to get into controversy,” Blake said at the time. In declining to vilify Hewitt, he delivered an Arthurian lesson in class.

Ironically, Blake threw a lot of tantrums as a kid (at one point, Brian Barker, Blake’s coach since the player was 11, even advised Tom and Betty Blake that their son might benefit from taking an extended break from the game). But Blake never took out his frustrations on anyone except himself. His mother, Betty, a native of Oxfordshire, England, where manners matter, says, “I was beating my head against the wall trying to figure out what to do with him. He thought there shouldn’t be any shot that beat him.”

But somewhere along the line, Blake did what you’re supposed to do—he grew up. He stopped acting out. He learned to take things as they came and accepted that he would sometimes get beaten, that the important thing wasn’t winning and losing but the struggle itself. It was a valuable realization because Blake struggled and lost often as a junior. As Barker says, “He was a good little player but a lot of guys were a lot better. He didn’t have that attitude that he should win, so he played below his level.”

Barker wasn’t too worried, though, since neither he nor Blake’s parents imagined the 5-foot, 85-pound 15-year-old in the plastic back brace (to correct scoliosis) might ever be a pro, much less the future of American tennis.

His coach, Barker: “He didn’t exactly light it up.”

His dad, Tom, a salesman at 3M: “Did it ever cross my mind that he was going to be a world-class player? No. Never.”

His mom, a secretary at a tennis club near the family’s home in Fairfield, Conn.: “Even when James turned professional, we didn’t think he’d make it.”

Neither did Blake himself, for that matter. As he says, “I never planned on this. If anything, my parents pushed me toward academics; tennis was never the first priority in the house. There are guys my age who’ve been on tour since they were sixteen.

“When I was sixteen, I was worried about getting my driver’s license and seeing if the cute girls in class would want to go out with me.”

At the start of his junior year in high school, Blake underwent a transformation. Just 5-foot-3 at the time, he experienced a tremendous growth spurt that would add 9 inches to his height by the time he graduated. (he’s now 6-foot-1, 170 pounds). By then, Blake already had the game of a scrapper—he rushed the net despite his size and relied on quickness to get to balls that he couldn’t put away. His lack of size as a young man served Blake well in the long run, enabling him to develop a smart, resourceful game that would be enhanced by his increased bulk. His experiences at the U.S. National Junior Championships, in Kalamazoo, Mich., were telling. In his first three trips he lost in the opening round. Then, suddenly, he started winning, going on a 49-match tear on the junior tour before losing in the Kalamazoo final in 1997.

Before long, Blake was the best college player in the country. He left Harvard after his sophomore year and turned pro. Barker, confident in his protégé’s chances, outlined a “worst-case scenario” for Blake: he would travel the world, make a little pocket money, have some fun, then return to college satisfied he’d given pro tennis his best shot. That forecast began to look prescient when Blake found himself mired in minor-league circuits and struggling in qualifier tournaments.

It never occurred to Blake that he wasn’t exactly taking the tour by storm that first year. He was having too much fun.

“I didn’t think I was doing that badly,” he told me, laughing, “but I came to find out my coach was questioning whether I’d be on the tour for long. Then, after getting nowhere for months in 2000, I went to a Challenger in Houston and won it.”

Just 12 months later, Blake found himself in Louis Armstrong Stadium nearly beating Hewitt, the eventual winner of that year’s U.S. Open.


So what changed? How do you account for the sudden transformation? After all, his brother, Tom, always a step ahead in their youths, is still among the hundreds struggling to break out of the Satellite tour.

The textbooks all say a great player must have a weapon, and Blake lately has noticed that rivals tend to avoid his forehand. But his real strength is his smarts. He has a broad shot vocabulary, and he occupies the court with authority and commanding ease—it’s as if he wears the court like an Armani suit. An economics major and analytical by nature, Blake also has gotten very good at performing a cost-benefit analysis during a match, figuring out what is or isn’t working and then—and this is the hard part—making the necessary corrections.

Of course, this isn’t a dispassionate process, and Blake still throws a racquet from time to time. He still berates himself. He still needs people like Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, to tell him that indulging in histrionics on court makes him look silly and emboldens his opponent, as it did last year in the Davis Cup match Blake lost to France’s Sebastien Grosjean. Still, Blake has been a pro for less than three years and, as McEnroe points out, his “rate of improvement has been remarkable.”

At times, Blake himself seems surprised to find that he’s no longer a tantrum-throwing 12-year-old. It’s been a little like discovering he’s become a catch after having been the short, skinny kid that the girls never noticed. He doesn’t know when or how things changed. There were no major breakthroughs, no epiphanies. Experience helped, as did a more disciplined training regimen and better match preparation, eating right, getting enough rest, all that stuff. Blake also learned that what his dad always said about hard work paying off is true. “Anytime I’d get down, my dad would always say, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to work harder; that’s how you get the most out of yourself.’ Even my coach would sometimes say that it’s not just hard work. There are other things involved—there’s technique, there’s talent, there’s size. But my dad was, ‘It’s only hard work.’ As a kid, you don’t always want to listen to your parents. But now, when I lose or want to change a situation, it usually comes down to working harder. Luckily, I got plenty of losses to teach me that lesson.”

One of those losses may have provided the closest experience to the elusive career turning point that Blake can’t identify. In Cincinnati, shortly before the 2001 U.S. Open, Blake beat two Top 60 players before losing to Patrick Rafter in three sets.

“A lot of guys, their egos are pretty fragile, and if someone ranked way below them gives them a good match, it’s, ‘Oh, I played horribly,’” Blake says. “Rafter didn’t say that. He told me, ‘You could have beaten me today. You could beat me on any given day. It’s just that maybe you didn’t believe you could. You had your chances and you didn’t stick to your game.’ To hear him say that was a big boost to my confidence. Rafter is one of those guys who definitely had to earn it, and maybe he saw that I wasn’t one of those kids who thought the world owed him something. But until then, I didn’t feel that I belonged on the ATP tour at all. After that, I started thinking, ‘Maybe he’s right. Maybe I do belong out here.’”

The encouragement had extra value, given its source. Rafter also was a late bloomer whose easygoing personality, good looks, and long climb through the Satellites hadn’t taken the edge off his competitiveness.

Blake took Rafter’s words to heart. He says, “What I’ve realized is that the way you play your best is your high-percentage game—it gives you the best chance of winning. The really great players never doubt themselves. They know what they’re going to do, and they do it.”


Blake is characteristically sheepish about his own achievements and often seems as mystified by his good fortune as those closest to him. He still doesn’t advertise his ambitions. During their freshman year at Harvard, Chris Stakich knew only that come spring, his roommate would be going out for the tennis team.

“Even though he was the number-one ranked amateur in the country at the time, not until the season rolled around did we realize he was even any good,” Stakich says. “He was just this nice, giggly, messy guy, always cracking jokes, always playing PlayStation, always hanging out. You’d never see him angry or upset. It never seemed that a whole lot was weighing on his mind. But on the court, he flips a switch. He doesn’t have that cocky swagger a lot of athletes do. He’s just very confident, very intense.”

Stakich, who has lived with James and Tom Blake in Tampa, also says that, if anything, success has made his friend even more humble. Still, Stakich keeps giving Blake crap. “Oh, you sexy beast,” he’ll shout, jumping on Blake and wrestling him to the ground if only to make the point that while Blake may be People’s “sexiest male athlete” and model bathing suits for Vogue, he still didn’t play fullback for the Harvard Crimson, as Stakich did.

Blake takes the abuse good-naturedly. He’s an amiable sort, and hanging out with him made for a completely relaxed and enjoyable day. The usual celebrity interview often feels like a singles match with no change of service. The writer serves up question after question and the subject bats them back perfunctorily.

But ask Blake about Hewitt, or Harvard, or playing in Harlem, or scoliosis, or modeling, or having a white mother and black father, or being compared to Arthur Ashe, and he’s all over those questions. He’ll hang back and rally as long as you want, though both of us, I think, would have preferred just shooting the breeze, or pool.

“James is a class act,” his friend Andy Roddick has said.

“I don’t know where James learned to be the man that he is, but I have a lot of respect for him,” Andre Agassi said. “He’s a great guy.”

“I think he could be a politician one day,” Serena Williams told the Los Angeles Times. “He says all the right things.”
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
850 Posts
squawk box said:
Well, I don't love James Blake. He is one of the most overrated, fat assed boy tennis players there is!!
Dude, you're fucked up. I think his scoliosis makes his butt protrude a little. His spine curves inward which sort of makes his butt stick out more.

You're just jealous anyway because the ladies love that big booty :D
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
850 Posts
squawk box said:
Oh! Is that his excuse for being OUT OF SHAPE?
Isn't he considered one of the fastest men on tour, right up there with Hewitt who is a good 3 or 4 inches shorter than Blake? Besides I've seen James Blake in person shirtless and believe me he is not out of shape. Quite the contrary actually.

PS Most truly gifted sprinters have a little junk in the trunk. Even Agassi has a disproportionately large derriere.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
21,802 Posts
so everyone with a big ass is out of shape? it couldn't quite possibly be muscle, right? me thinks this is cultural bias... :rolleyes:

:hearts: @ James! where's my child support, James? I swear I get pregnant every time I watch him play! ;)
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
850 Posts
cariosity said:
so everyone with a big ass is out of shape? it couldn't quite possibly be muscle, right? me thinks this is cultural bias... :rolleyes:

:hearts: @ James! where's my child support, James? I swear I get pregnant every time I watch him play! ;)
Yo cari. Is James yo baby daddy?
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
21,802 Posts
M.S., I wish he was something to me... :mad:, a friend, boyfriend, husband, baby daddy, financier... I could go on... ;)
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
8,187 Posts
:worship: James :worship:
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
8,950 Posts
i've been really dissapointed with james blakes progress he should be reaching quarters at grand slams by now he is talented enough to go al the way but he just has to get some things together to be consistent enough to go that far in a grand slam or any big tournament.

i thought he wore a back brace for like 14 months as a teenager because his back bone was out of shap and going further out of shape, that could be why it looks like he has a big ass.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
21,802 Posts
yes, he had scoliosis

and he made the qtr's of AO, so that's progress.

but he's choking in the lower tiered tournaments. i'm frustrated. like Marat was having problems but he's made the semi's. hopefully, this slump will go away soon and he can defend his title at least and make the qtr's of all the slams. that should be his minor goal this year. GO JAMES!
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
8,950 Posts
sorry i forgot he made the AO quarters.
 

·
Keeper of Secrets
Joined
·
9,026 Posts
:worship: James is such a sweetie :lick:
I just wish he wouldn't berate himself so much on court.

Good Luck James. The article makes me miss Pat even more..
 

·
Banned
Joined
·
11,012 Posts
cariosity said:
I swear I get pregnant every time I watch him play! ;)
yo i heard THAT

James Blake: The Quite American??? oh please that boy hollers so loud the neighbors SWEAR im hurtin him :eek:
 
1 - 20 of 20 Posts
Top