In 2002 James Blake of Fairfield was one of the hottest young tennis players around. In "Blake's Progress" K. Lee Howard profiles the young player at the beginning of a career that would take him to the ATP Top 10 four years later.
This article is being posted to the web in March 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
James Blake of Fairfield, playing on the stadium court at the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport, R.I., cracks a full-stride winner against the tournament’s No. 1 seed. Then he slides to his knees, flashes a quick smile, gathers his spidery legs off the grass, lopes to the backcourt, nods and quietly says, “Thank you.”
Just another prima donna acknowledging the crowd? Hardly. After riding a Harlem-to-Harvard legend that even he finds amusing, Blake hasn’t come this far to revel in false bravado. He directs his thanks to the tournament’s ballboys and girls. Not just once in a while. Every time he has a chance.
“I remember being a ballboy, and it’s not easy,” Blake says later, recalling his ballboy days at the men’s Volvo International tournament (now the Pilot Pen) in New Haven. “They get treated poorly by some of the players.”
The sentiment, delivered with a ready smile that could be read as wise- guy smart but somehow comes across as sincerely polite, is classic Blake.
Though everyone who saw him early on agrees he started off as a racket-throwing tennis brat, the 22-year-old Blake, with movie-star looks and an insightful intelligence, has become one of the best-liked players in the game.
And, increasingly, one of the most feared. After toiling obscurely in the minor leagues of pro tennis, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Blake made a breakthrough last July in Newport, reaching the semifinals. He followed that success with a series of impressive wins, including one over Marcelo Rios, the former No. 1 player in the world. At the U.S. Open, he came within a whisker of beating the brash Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, the eventual Open champion and year-end world No. 1. “The Hewitt match probably did more than anything else to put James in the public eye,” says his agent, Carlos Fleming of International Management Group, which recently signed Blake on as an IMG model as well. “It wasn’t so much for the tennis, but everything that happened outside of tennis.”
Fleming refers to Hewitt’s now-famous suggestion, in the heat of battle, that a line call went Blake’s way because both Blake and the line judge were black. Despite repeated attempts by the media to bait him into branding Hewitt a bigot, Blake took the high road and gave his opponent the benefit of the doubt.
“Even Andre Agassi took note of the way he handled himself,” Fleming says. “He impressed a lot of people.”
But it wasn’t just Blake’s poise that caught people’s eye. The level of his play in the second half of the season prompted Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe to name him to the U.S. squad that beat India last November in North Carolina. Blake, who finished the year as one of the world’s top 75 players and is believed to be the first Connecticut-raised Davis Cup player, won both of his singles matches.
In February, he padded his perfect Davis Cup record with two wins against the Slovak Republic, including a doubles victory with Mardy Fish that cemented the Americans’ first-round victory in Oklahoma City.
With Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick playing for the United States this year— and the United States eyeing a grass- court venue for its next Davis Cup match this month against Spain—McEnroe can’t say for sure whether Blake will compete this time around. But he likes his team spirit as well as his future in the game. “James has a potential to go a lot higher than where he is now,” he said just before Blake made it to his first top-flight final in late February before losing a three-set battle to Andy Roddick in Memphis.
“His level of improvement has been amazing,” agrees his coach, Brian Barker, the pro at the Tennis Club of Trumbull who has guided Blake since he was 10. “I don’t think there’s a limit to how good he can be.”
Blake describes himself as a late bloomer, but tennis seems to have been his destiny. His mother, Betty, a native of England, notes that he was almost born on a tennis court—literally. At the age of 44, she went into labor after her husband, Thomas, prodded her onto the court to play when she was eight months pregnant with James.
The Blakes, both excellent amateur players, say they never pushed their kids to play. Yet both James and his older brother, Thomas Jr., have world rankings in singles and often play doubles on the tour as well. “People ask us,‘How did you do it?’” says Thomas Sr., who sells healthcare supplies for 3M. “I tell them the first thing you do is you make sure they’re having fun. The other thing is you stay the hell out of the way.” Adds Betty, “We always encouraged and supported whatever they wanted to do.”
Thomas, for instance, announced in eighth grade that he intended to go to Harvard—and, five years later, that’s exactly what he did.
James, who complains that he had to work harder than his more scholastic- minded brother, followed three years later, in 1997. And so began the legend of James Blake, who has tried to fend off, with little success, characterizations of himself as the player who went “from Harlem to the halls of Harvard.”
‘'I’ve joked about it with the people I grew up with,” he says. “I can always tell when they’re going to spin it that way.” For the record, James, whose mother is white and father is black, did take his first tennis clinic at the Harlem Armory—at age 4. His parents were living in Yonkers at the time, and moved two years later to Fairfield—onto a street where houses sit so dose together that the mail carrier still walks door to door.
By the time Blake graduated from Fairfield High he was the top junior tennis player in the country—an almost unprecedented feat for someone from a cold-weather state who had never attended a warm-weather tennis academy. Staying in Connecticut may have slowed his development as a player, but he has no regrets. At a tennis academy, where kids play for six hours and get tutored for three, “you don’t have a balanced life." he says. “And that's one of the things I have had.”
To compete with the sunshine kids, he drilled with Brian Barker at an indoor court every morning before school. “We used to freeze it was so cold, because it would take a while for the court to warm up,” Barker recalls. “But he wouldn’t be where he is now if he didn’t do it.” Besides his brother, who blazed trails for him in college and the pros, Blake often practiced with Mats Wilander, the former Swedish star who then lived in Fairfield. Wilander, a one-time world No. 1 who also drilled with Thomas Jr., spotted James’ talent immediately. “He reminded me of Pete Sampras, the way he hit the ball clean,” Wilander says.
Two years after graduating from Fairfield High, Blake gained the No. 1 ranking in all of college tennis as a sophomore at Harvard, left college and turned pro. But success didn’t come immediately. In fact, in his first two years on the tour, he won only two top-level matches.
“A lot of guys would have gotten discouraged, but not James,” Barker says. “He is as tough mentally as anyone I’ve ever met.”
“I didn’t have a whole lot of experience when I turned pro,” admits Blake, who last year won nearly $200,000. “It’s taken me a little bit of time to adjust.” Part of the adjustment has involved juggling the questions that come with being the next Great Black Hope in U.S. tennis. MaliVai Washington, the former Wimbledon finalist with whom Blake has been compared, says the pressure is only going to intensify. “He has a great presence about him,” Washington says. “All he needs now is continued results. You take the package he brings to the court every day and add a couple of Grand Slam titles, and he’s going to have as great an influence or even greater influence than the Williams sisters.”
Washington is referring, of course, to Venus and Serena Williams, the two African-American dynamos who have had a huge impact on the women's game, winning five Grand Slam singles championships between them. No black American male has won a major tennis title since the late Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975. It’s no surprise, then, that Blake is most often compared to Ashe, or that the Hall of Fame player is one of his heroes.
“I think the most amazing thing about Arthur Ashe is what he had to go through off the court, the racial barriers he had to break through,” Blake says. "After his death, the main thing people remembered was not that he was a great tennis player, but that he was a great human being, a great humanitarian.
“When he got AIDS from no fault of his own, from a heart transplant, he didn’t ask, ‘Why me?’ He didn’t become bitter. Ashe said, he didn’t ask, ‘Why me?’ when he was holding up the Wimbledon trophy, so he didn’t see why he should feel sorry for himself when he got sick.”
Whether or not Blake has the same impact on tennis as Ashe, he has clearly adopted Ashe’s philosophy of putting tennis into a broader context. As he said after a frustrating loss shortly after Sept. 11, “I just lost a tennis match; a lot of people lost a lot more than that.”
His ability to put things into perspective shouldn’t be confused with a lack of desire. Friends say a fiery will burns beneath the mellow exterior. Yet, while many players have specific goals, Blake deflects questions about his goals, focusing instead on improving his play.
All indications are that Blake, now living with his brother in a new house they bought recently at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Fla., will get belter—the only question is how much. Meanwhile, he seems to be thriving.
“I’ve gotten used to this [pro-circuit] life, and I feel now that I can just concentrate solely on tennis,” he says. “And it’s showing in my matches.”
Not that a higher ranking—26th at last look—has gone to his head; he still signs all autographs thrust his way, and takes the time to personalize them when he can. Just in case his head swells, though, his friends from home stand ready to keep him in check.
“He has really good friends,” says Barker, who recently agreed to tour with him half the year as his personal coach. “His friends are grounded, his parents are grounded. We’re always telling him. ‘If you ever get cocky, we’ll kill you.’ We’re half-joking, but half-serious, too.”
More sports stories from the archives:
Most everyone thought it was a crazy idea, but on the eve of ESPN’s launch, Bryan Miller takes a sneak peek at the upstart, sports-focused cable station out of Bristol in “Television Gets (Even More) Sports Crazy” (September 1979).
Terese Karmel’s “Husky Heaven” (March 1995) takes a look at the classic UConn basketball women’s team at the start of their phenomenal streak.
Lime Rock Park gets an early profile in these pages in John Birchard’s “Lime Rock Bridges the Gap” (May 1972), a look at the auto racing venue's broad appeal.
And Charles Monagan visits the starting line of a slightly less, let’s say sanctioned, type of auto race in “The Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” (June 1979), a Darien-to-California cross-country race that was the inspiration for the 1981 big-screen comedy The Cannonball Run.
Read even more stories from Connecticut Magazine's 50-year history at connecticutmag.com/archives