- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

MASON, Ohio He is surrounded by swooning, the object of a dozen dreamy gazes. And James Blake, bless his poor, put upon soul, just can't help it.
Then again, he can't help his ridiculously well-chiseled cheekbones, either.
It's a breezy summer evening at the Tennis Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati, and Blake, an American ranked No.29 in the world, has just notched an impressive, hard-fought victory over Romania's Andrei Pavel.
Tall, dark and handsome to the point of weary cliche he is, in fact, a part-time professional model Blake stands at the edge of a grandstand court, signing autographs.
All around him, children clamor. Well-wishers shout congratulations. And female admirers stop to, well, gawk, eyeing Blake in the same manner that male fans eye Anna Kournikova.
Which is, of course, the way Wile E. Coyote surveyed the Road Runner. Sans the open, slack-jawed slobbering.
"It makes me laugh," Blake said of his female, er, fan base. "Hopefully, they'll be able to come out and appreciate good tennis."
Given Blake's rapid climb to the upper echelon of the sport, that shouldn't be a problem. Over the last year, the 22-year-old New York native has risen 59 spots up from No.88 in the ATP Champions Race, good enough for the No.6 seed in this week's Legg Mason Tennis Classic.
Along the way, he's advanced to a pair of tournament finals, compiled a perfect 5-0 mark in Davis Cup singles and doubles play and come within a few untimely upchucks of knocking off world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt in the second round of the U.S. Open.
All of which makes Blake the most promising young American tennis talent since last year's tournament champ, No.12 ranked and second-seeded Andy Roddick.
Not to mention the only ATP pro with a glossy spread in the upcoming issue of a major fashion magazine.
"I've seen a lot of [Blake]," said Andre Agassi, the Classic's top seed. "I'm not surprised by any times he's done well. He is a great athlete, big forehand, a phenomenal mover around the court. And he's a great competitor. Those are some pretty good strengths."

Unlikely star
Though Blake has approximately 1,197 reasons to be the latest addition to a long line of insufferably arrogant tennis punks No.57: He went to Harvard he's actually anything but. Instead, the lanky kid with the Sideshow Bob 'do is regarded by many as one of the tour's most gracious competitors.
Told that his year-to-date prize winnings of $326,124 exceed those of Pete Sampras ($302,399), Blake expressed surprise.
"I didn't know that," he said. "But I think he's got just a little edge on the career prize money. He's done a few things before us that are worthy of all of our respect. It's something that I can tell my grandkids."
Blake's attitude stems in part from his atypical background. Like many top players, he comes from a tennis family; unlike some, he wasn't pushed to play the sport, shipped off to a high-priced Florida tennis academy or given pint-size balls to bat while still in his crib.
Blake's parents, Thomas and Betty Blake, met on the public tennis courts at Fay Park in Yonkers, N.Y. Coming off a stint in the Air Force, Thomas was looking for a hitting partner.
He asked Betty born in England, a former junior Olympic long jumper and perhaps the best player at the park for a few pointers.
"They ended up hitting together, and I guess they hit it off, too," Blake said with a laugh.
As such, Blake and older brother Thomas Jr. were introduced to tennis at an early age. The two boys soon became regulars at the Harlem Tennis Center on East 143rd Street, where their parents helped organize minority youth leagues and instructional programs.
When Blake was 6, however, his family moved to Fairfield, Conn. Five years later, he met his current coach, Brian Barker, at a nearby tennis club.
A former pro, Barker took one look at his wispy charge all 5 feet and 90 pounds of him and pegged Blake as a future college player. At best.
Blake's budding career was nearly cut short at the age of 13 when he was diagnosed with scoliosis, a potentially debilitating curvature of the spine. Doctors gave him two options: Undergo corrective surgery and give up tennis or wear a plastic back brace for up to 18 hours a day.
"It wasn't even a choice," Blake said. "It was, 'I'll wear the brace. I'll do whatever I have to do.'"
While the awkward appendage didn't help Blake's teen-age social life he confesses he was "really shy" in high school it made a lasting impression on his character, beginning with a trip to the Shriners' Hospital for Crippled Children.
"I went there to get the brace," he said. "You see people with amputated legs, severe scoliosis where they have rods in their backs, just so many debilitating injuries. I felt lucky just to be walking."
Allowed to take off his brace only while playing tennis, Blake was determined to make the most of his time on the court.
"Being on the tennis court was when I felt normal," he said. "I was out of my brace, just being a kid and having a great time. I was so happy."
Maybe so, but as Blake and Barker freely admit, Blake's joy wasn't always obvious. Or contagious, for that matter. For much of his early teens, he suffered from a common tennis affliction.
"I was a little brat," Blake said.
In a typical half-hour lesson with Barker, Blake would spend five minutes hitting and 25 minutes venting over a missed shot. When Blake called his coach after playing in a tournament, the first question wasn't "did you win?" but rather "how did you act?"
Needless to say, the elder Blakes were a bit taken aback when their temperamental son brought home his first sportsmanship trophy.
"My mom said, 'What's that?'" Blake said with a laugh. "I said it was a sportsmanship award. She said, 'No, really. No way. You didn't win a sportsmanship award.' They were very surprised."

From Harvard to the tour
Thanks to his improving attitude and an 8-inch growth spurt over his last two years of high school, Blake's game began to blossom. He won a pair of state championships at Fairfield High, going undefeated over his last 40 matches.
Yet while junior tennis contemporaries like Roddick soon would dive head-first into choppy surf of the ATP tour, Blake was content to keep his dreadlocks dry.
"I just wasn't ready to turn pro when I was 17," said Blake, who at 15 failed to qualify for junior nationals. "I never thought it was an option. I was working hard to be a really good college player, maybe be an All-American."
Blake followed his older brother to Harvard, where as a freshman he played in the No.1 spot and went 37-4, capturing the U.S. National 18s Clay Courts title and the nation's top junior ranking to boot. He finished the next season as the NCAA's No.1 player.
Eager for a challenge but reluctant to leave school, Blake agonized over turning pro. When he made the jump in the summer of 1999, he had no idea of what came next.
"I really hadn't been groomed for the tour," he said. "Part of the NCAA rules about agents is that they're not allowed to talk numbers with you or talk to companies about you until you turn pro. So when I signed my first contract, I didn't know to expect a $50 contract or a $5million contract."
After signing with International Management Group agent Carlos Fleming who also represents the Williams sisters Blake moved with his older brother to Tampa, Fla., to train at Saddlebrook Tennis Academy. He stayed afloat with the help of sponsors like Nike; prize money paydays were few and far between.
Blake won his inaugural pro tournament, a minor league Futures event, and notched his first ATP victory by defeating former Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington. Granted a wild-card entry into the 1999 U.S. Open, he was crushed in the first round by American journeyman Chris Woodruff, winning just five games in three sets.
Accustomed to outworking his college opponents, Blake was shocked by the tour's intensity level. And his versatile, all-court game left him thinking instead of reacting a prescription for disaster against 130-mph serves and blistering groundstrokes.
"When I first started out, I didn't know what to do," he said. "I felt like I could serve and volley, stay back and run and play defensive, chip and charge. I could do a whole lot of different things but never decided on one."
Blake stumbled through 2000. Playing primarily on the Challenger circuit the tennis version of Class A baseball he dropped six straight matches to start the year and went eight months without consecutive victories.
Though Blake rebounded in the fall by winning two Challenger tournaments, his year-end ATP entry system ranking stood at No.223 just 39 spots better than his 1999 mark and far removed from the tour's main draw range.
"James was the best college player, but when you come to the pros, no one gives a darn," U.S. Davis Cup coach Patrick McEnroe said. "You have to be pretty darn good to go from being a great college player to being a top pro. It rarely happens."
Frustrated, Blake worked with Barker to improve his shaky backhand. His results slowly improved. Last January, he lost to Roddick in the finals of a Hawaii Challenger. Six months later, he advanced to his first career ATP semifinal.
Blake's real breakthrough, however, came at the Masters Event in Cincinnati. After upsetting Arnaud Clement of France, he nearly took a set off Australia's Patrick Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champ and one of the world's top players.
As the two met at the net following the match, Rafter offered words of encouragement.
"He said, 'The only reason you lost that match is because you didn't believe,'" Blake said. "[Before that], I didn't have confidence that I could play with a player like that, anyone of a top-10 caliber."
Finally convinced that he belonged on tour, Blake nearly pulled the biggest upset of last year's U.S. Open. Facing eventual champion Hewitt in the second round, he took a 2-1 lead in sets before severe, heat-related cramps set in.
Seeking relief, Blake chugged a high-sodium drink. He promptly vomited on the grandstand court. Woozy and barely able to serve, he played out the match and departed to a standing ovation.
Less than a week later, McEnroe named Blake to the Davis Cup team that faced India in October. Blake won his first two singles matches and has played on every American squad since.
That caught the eye of British star Tim Henman, who attempted, only half-jokingly, to recruit Blake for Team England while practicing at this year's Australian Open.
"I saw in him a guy that's explosive," McEnroe said. "As he's learned to figure out his weapons and what he needs to improve, that's starting to show in his work."

How high?
Is it ever. Blake won a Hawaii challenger to start the year apparently, the only thing better than playing in Waikoloa is winning in Waikoloa and has advanced to ATP finals at Memphis and Newport. His 23 match wins are nearly double his career total before this season.
Among the victims: current and former top-20 players Michael Chang, Jan-Michael Gambill, Tommy Haas, Alex Corretja, Fabrice Santoro and Guillermo Canas.
"James has had a very good year," said Gambill, the classic's No.11 seed. "With those wins comes confidence. You start getting people behind you."
Despite his newfound sense of self, Blake isn't sure exactly how far he can climb in the rankings. His speedy, well-rounded game lacks an overpowering weapon, and he has yet to advance past the second round of a Grand Slam.
"As long as I work as hard as I possibly can without burning myself out, I'll be happy," Blake said. "If that ends with me being No.30 in the world, so be it. If it goes to top 10, top 5, whatever, I'll be proud of myself for the hard work, and not necessarily the numerical level."
As the highest-ranked black male player since Washington his mother is white, his father black Blake also has drawn attention for the color of his skin, most notably during his near-miss against Hewitt.
Called for a pair of foot faults by a black linesman, the volatile Hewitt turned to the chair umpire and blurted, "Look at him and you tell me what the similarity is!" The linesman was removed, and many in attendance thought the remark was racial in nature.
Besieged by the press after the match, Blake refused to rip Hewitt. Instead, he said the matter had already been settled in the locker room.
"We talked about it," Blake said. "That's what the locker room is for that was kind of a crash course in media relations. It wasn't what I expected.
"I was feeling so badly after the match that I was just worried about getting into the training room, trying to get an IV. I didn't realize that I would have security guards going around with me for the whole day and would have to do a huge press conference."
Blake was widely praised for his measured reaction, even evoking comparisons to one of his idols, Arthur Ashe. Like Ashe, Blake considers himself a role model for minority youth; as such, he remains involved with the Harlem Junior Tennis Program.
"You know that [kids] are going to go out and pick up a racket and try to be like their favorite player," Blake said. "[Being a role model] just comes with the territory. That's our job. I take it very seriously."
By contrast, Blake takes his fledgling modeling career with an ocean's worth of salt. Named the tour's sexiest player by Deuce, a tennis magazine, he's determined to avoid what his agent dubs "the Kournikova Syndrome."
In other words, don't expect to see Blake vamping for the camera in, say, an Enrique Iglesias video (on second thought, better make that Shakira).
"It's very, very secondary for me," Blake said. "If modeling ever interfered with my tennis, I wouldn't let that happen."
And as for interfering in his life? Frankly, Blake may not have much of a choice. He's due to appear in the September issue of Vogue, a shoot that's sure to win Blake a bevy of new female fans.
A few of whom might even enjoy tennis.
"I shouldn't say this, but I didn't realize how big Vogue was," Blake said. "When I told a friend of mine, she was like, 'Oh my God, that's the biggest, it's such a great magazine to be in.' So I guess it's great."
Blake paused, then laughed.
"You probably shouldn't print that," he said. "Otherwise they might take me out of the magazine."

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