Blake, James 1979–
James Blake 1979–
James Blake is a rising international tennis star. He turned professional in 1999 and won his first ATP singles title in 2002. He became only the fourth African-American male to win an ATP title. He was also the first African-American man to break into the top 50 tennis rankings since 1997. Blake’s tennis talent, quiet demeanor, and graciousness on and off the court have led many to compare him to his hero, the great American tennis star and the first great African-American player, Arthur Ashe. Blake is working hard to live up to the expectations that the tennis public has for him.
James Blake was born on December 28, 1979, in Yonkers, New York, into a tennis family. His father, Thomas, and his mother, Betty, met on the public tennis courts of New York. Thomas Blake learned to play tennis during his tenure in the United States Air Force, while Betty Blake picked up the game as a grade school student in Banbury, England. The Blakes played tennis regularly at the 369th Armory in Harlem and they took their young children with them. By the age of five James began playing tennis with his older brother Thomas, Jr.
When Blake was six years old, his family moved to Fairfield, Connecticut. His father worked as a salesperson for 3M Worldwide, a technology company, while his mother worked as a secretary at the local tennis club. Both Thomas and James took lessons at the Trumbull Tennis Club in Connecticut. It was at this club that Blake met Brian Barker, who began coaching Blake at age 12.
Yet the Blakes ties to Harlem remained strong. They continued to play tennis in Harlem on a regular basis and volunteered at the Harlem Junior Tennis League, a program aimed at introducing tennis to inner-city children. As a result of their parents’ involvement in the Harlem program, Blake and his brother participated in the League’s tennis clinics. As a biracial child, Blake moved comfortably between the very different worlds of middle-class Fairfield and inner-city Harlem with tennis as a bridge between them. It was at one of the tennis clinics in Harlem that James first heard the famous African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe speak. Ashe was the first black man to reach the number one rankings in international tennis. He was a
At a Glance…
Born on December 28, 1979, in Yonkers, NY; son of Thomas and Betty Blake. Education: Harvard University, economics major, 1997–1999.
Career: Professional tennis player, 1999–.
Memberships: Association of Tennis Professionals, 1999–; Harlem Junior Tennis League, guest coach; Starlight Children’s Foundation; Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day.
Awards: All-American, Harvard University, 1998; Number one ranked collegiate tennis player, Harvard University, 1999; Rookie of the Year, World Team Tennis, 2000; ATP singles title, Washington, DC, 2002; ATP double title, Cincinnati, 2002; ATP doubles title, Scottsdale, 2003,
Addresses: Office: —c/o Carlos Fleming, IMG, 1360 L 9th Street, Suite 100, Cleveland, OH 44114.
pioneer for African Americans in a sport that has been dominated by whites. Ashe’s passionate speech and his reputation as both a great tennis player and a well-respected person inspired Blake to consider a career in tennis.
Blake’s parents encouraged both of their sons to pursue their tennis interests, but they did not pressure them into choosing tennis as a career. On the contrary, the Blakes tried to provide a normal, healthy family life for their children. “I believe our family enjoyed a wealth greater than material goods can supply,” Betty Blake wrote in Deuce Magazine in 2003. “Harmony pervaded our home, a feeling of mutual respect, love, and that essential ingredient, humor. Importantly, we spent time together.” Blake’s father insisted that the boys spend at least two days a week without television and they were creative in how they spent their time. Aside from playing tennis, Blake had several small jobs to earn spending money, such as delivering newspapers, taking care of pets, raking leaves, and shoveling snow.
Much of Blake’s early tennis career was spent playing “catch up.” His brother Thomas, who was three years older, developed his tennis game more quickly, in part because he was physically stronger and the taller of the two boys. At age 13 Blake was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. His treatment options were to have surgery or to wear a back brace. Surgery would have meant that Blake could no longer play tennis, so he chose to wear the brace. He only took it off for a few hours each day to play tennis. Aside from his back problem, Blake was also small as a child. “I was resigned to being the short one in the family. Being unable to use my serve as a weapon, I learned to play small, scrapping out points, getting the ball back,” Blake explained to Peter Bodo of TENNIS Magazine in April of 2002. “And that helped me later on, because I feel like I can still create points and win matches without having to rely on a weapon.”
Despite his physical setbacks, Blake was able to succeed as a junior tennis player. In 1996 he won the United States Tennis Association Boys 18s Indoors Championship and a year later he won the clay court title. In 1997 he was ranked the number one U.S. junior in 18s. During this time his brother Thomas was attending college at Harvard University. He became captain of the tennis team and was an All-American tennis player. Blake was determined to keep up with his brother. He was hesitant to follow Thomas to Harvard because of the academic demands of the prestigious college, but he decided to accept the challenge. Like his brother, Blake studied economics at Harvard and joined the tennis team. During his first year of college Blake became the first Harvard freshman to be named All-American. In 1999 he was the number one collegiate tennis player in the country. He and his brother were also successful doubles partners.
After spending two years at Harvard, Blake made the difficult decision to leave college and become a professional tennis player. “It wasn’t a popular move within the family for me to drop out of school,” Blake told Justin Brown of the Christian Science Monitor in May of 2002. “But I had gotten to the point where I needed better opponents to improve as a player.” Blake moved from Boston to Tampa, Florida, where he lives and trains with his brother Thomas. When Blake joined the professional ranks he quickly realized just how much better his opponents were than him. He struggled during his first year as a professional and was very frustrated by his performance. “James was the best college player, but when you come to the pros, no one gives a darn,” explained U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe to the Washington Times in August of 2002.
Blake spent most of the 2000 tennis year on the Challenger circuit, trying to quickly bring his game up to the level of his professional peers. He won his first career Challenger title in Houston and another in Rancho Mirage. He was named the 2000 Rookie of the Year for World Team Tennis. In 2001 he had continued success in the Challenger circuit and began to progress in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) matches. He reached his first career ATP semifinal round in Newport and he reached the second round of the U.S. Open. In 2001 Blake also made his debut as a Davis Cup team player.
By the beginning of the 2002 season Blake had broken into the top 100 of the men’s tennis rankings. That year he also won his first career ATP singles title in Washington, D.C. He was the first African-American man to win that tournament since his hero, Arthur Ashe. He became only the fourth African-American man to win an ATP title in the Open Era. Blake also won his first ATP doubles title in Cincinnati playing with fellow American Todd Martin. His rankings steadily improved and Blake became the first African-American man to break into the top 50 rankings since MaliVai Washington had accomplished this in 1997. In 2003 Blake was not able to secure another singles title, but he did win a second ATP doubles title in Scottsdale. His singles record for the 2003 season was 32 wins and 26 losses and he was ranked 37th in the world.
Blake’s steady improvement in the rankings, his commanding forehand, and his ability to think quickly on his feet have made him one of the rising American male tennis stars. He has also gained the respect of his peers and the tennis community through his professional attitude, affable demeanor, and graciousness on and off the court. Because of these qualities, Blake is often compared to the great Arthur Ashe. “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,” wrote Thomas Hackett of TENNIS Magazine in April of 2003.
Blake is well aware of the added pressure that is put on him by the media and the public because of his status as the only top-ranked African-American male player. The expectations of him as a role model quickly became obvious during a 2001 U.S. Open match against the men’s best player at that time, Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt was frustrated by two foot faults called by a black linesman and allegedly made an inappropriate comment. While the media was expecting Blake to make a scene about the incident, Blake very graciously returned his attention back to the game. He later spoke with Hewitt privately in the locker room, but he did not turn the incident into a media spectacle. Blake is not naive about racism in professional sports, but he appreciates the opportunities he has been given because of earlier pioneers. “For me to say there is still a ton of racism on the tour would be disrespectful to Arthur Ashe and MaliVai Washington, and all the things they’ve gone through,” Blake explained to Chip Brown of the Dallas Star in April of 2002. “I haven’t seen the things they saw. I feel progress is being made.”
Blake is flattered by the comparisons that are often made between him and Ashe, although he realizes those are big shoes to fill. Blake is eager to step up to the expectations the public has of him to be a role model for other African Americans as a tennis star and more generally as an athlete. “[Being a role model] just comes with the territory. That’s our job. I take it very seriously,” Blake told Patrick Hruby of the Washington Times in August of 2002. During his time off Blake is involved in several charities. He and his brother both volunteer to teach lessons at the Harlem Junior Tennis League. Blake has also worked for the Starlight Children’s Foundation in New York and participates in the annual Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the U.S. Open.
In addition to his talent and personality, Blake’s good looks and fashion sense have fueled his popularity. In 2002 he began a modeling career, appearing in GQ and Vogue magazines. He was also named the “Sexiest Male Athlete” by People magazine. In December of 2003 Blake made a bold fashion move and cut off his trademark dreadlocks in exchange for a clean-shaven look. While Blake is pleased with the media and fan attention due to his looks, he wants the focus to remain on the game of tennis. As he told People Weekly, “I never really thought of myself as a good-looking guy. But I hope if fans are coming out just to look at me, they’ll end up noticing there’s tennis going on.”
Baltimore Sun, December 4, 2003; December 5, 2003.
Black Enterprise, September 1, 2003.
Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 2002.
Dallas Star, April 3, 2002.
Deuce Magazine, 2003.
ESPN Magazine, June 23, 2003.
Jet, May 24, 1999.
Harvard University Gazette, May 7, 1998.
Independent, June 2002.
Ivy League Sports, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2002.
Mirror, June 24, 2002.
Observer, May 4, 2003.
People Weekly, July 29, 2002, p. 65.
Sports Illustrated, April 15, 2002, p. R8.
TENNIS Magazine, September 1999, p. 26; April 2002; May 2003.
USTA Magazine, 2002.
Washington Times, August 12, 2002.
“Blake, Roddick Are Hits in Climb Up ATP Charts,” ESPN, www.espn.com (January 3, 2004).
“James Blake,” ATP Tennis, www.atptennis.com/en/players/playerbios/ (January 3, 2004).
“James Blake,” U.S. Open 2003, www.usopen.org/en_US/nios/profile/ms/atpb676.html (January 3, 2004).
“James Blake Athlete Bio,” Olympics USA, www.olympic-usa.org/cfdocs/athlete_bios/ (January 3, 2004).
James Blake Tennis, www.jamesblaketennis.com(January 3, 2004).
—Janet P. Stamatel