James Blake is as affable and self-possessed a tennis player as
there is. Name another pro who thanks the ball kids each time
they toss him a ball. But disparage his favorite TV show, The
Simpsons, and you do so at your own peril. "I hate when people
say, 'How can you like a cartoon?'" says Blake, who just finished
the book The Gospel According to the Simpsons. "If you get past
the slapstick, it's so clever. Just give it some time and get
used to it."
That's the approach Blake has taken with his career. In his first
two years on tour since leaving Harvard after his sophomore
season in 1999, he won just three main-draw ATP matches.
Subsisting--barely--on wild cards, qualifying draws and challenger
circuit matches, he was ranked in the triple-digit hinterlands.
Still, he never thought much about switching the channel and
returning to school. "My attitude was that as long as I felt I
was improving and was gradually getting more confident, the wins
would come," he says.
Blake's star turn came at last fall's U.S. Open. In the second
round he nearly took out eventual champ Lleyton Hewitt before
wilting in the fifth set. (Blake garnished his superb tennis by
showing exceptional poise and grace afterward, effectively
letting Hewitt off the hook for a racially tinged outburst during
the match.) Confidence begat confidence, and, to borrow from
another Blake, he has continued burning bright in 2002. Endowed
with an athletic, all-court game and a weapons-grade forehand,
Blake, 22, has beaten players like Alex Corretja, Tommy Haas and
Fabrice Santoro and infiltrated the top 40 of the ATP Champions
Race. What's more, he has become a Davis Cup stalwart. Last
Saturday in Houston, Blake partnered with Todd Martin to win the
crucial doubles point as the U.S. defeated Spain in a
quarterfinal tie. (The Americans will play France on its home
soil in the semis in September.) "James's improvement has been
dramatic," says American captain Patrick McEnroe, "but the best
part is that I don't think he's hit a plateau yet."
Blake assumed his intelligence would be an asset as a pro, but he
had to learn not to overthink on the court. One of tennis's myths
is that it's a physical version of chess. While strategy and
courtcraft help, the most successful practitioners tend not to
have many conflicting thoughts rolling around in their heads.
"There are definitely players who are at 6-5, 30-all in the third
set and they're too clueless to understand that it's a big
point," says Blake, who plans to return to Harvard to get an
economics degree when his career is over. "It doesn't come
naturally, but I'm learning to simplify things."
The son of a British mother, Betty, and an African-American
father, Tom, Blake moves easily between worlds and cultures. He
grew up in Fairfield, Conn., one of the wealthiest zip codes in
the U.S., but on Sundays, James, his brother, Thomas, 25, and
their dad volunteered at tennis clinics in Harlem. "It was no big
deal," says James. "I had my Fairfield friends and my Harlem
friends." Now that's he suddenly the most highly regarded
minority ATP player since Mal Washington, he faces additional
pressure. "I hope I can be looked at as another young American,"
he says, absently running a hand through his dreads, "but I
understand there are people who will be more inclined to watch me
because they can relate to me more. And I realize that there
haven't been many top players who look like I do."
Another difference between Blake and the run-of-the-mill pro: He
fully appreciates the charmed existence top tour players lead.
"Trust me," he says. "We have no reason to complain." This was
thrown into particularly sharp relief last month, after Blake had
tuned top 20 player Guillermo Canas to reach the fourth round of
the NASDAQ-100 in Miami. Upon returning to his hotel Blake read
an e-mail sent by an old Harvard friend, Chris Verdini, who had
just turned in a 40-page brief and was lamenting his life as an
overworked law student at Virginia. In closing Verdini wrote,
"What's up with you, James?" Blake pondered the question. Let's
see, I played tennis in the sun for a while today; I probably
made $20,000; got a massage; I'm driving around in a Mercedes the
tournament is lending me; now I'll take a nap and decide where to
go to dinner on South Beach tonight. He spared his friend the
gruesome details and responded simply, "Life is good, man."
COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY HEAD GAME Blake, who attended Harvard, has had to learn not to overthink on the court.
"I realize there haven't been many top players who look
like I do."