NEW YORK — After 14 years on the ATP Tour, James Blake retired in 2013—but he couldn’t stay away from the game for long. Just last month, the former world No. 4 returned to the court and won all three matches in his first Champions Tour event in Delray Beach, Florida. Despite his on-court efforts, Blake is interested in impacting tennis in a different way.
On Feb. 12, Blake became chairman of the USTA Foundation—a position previously held by Mary Carillo that makes him the public face of the USTA’s charitable arm, which aims to improve the lives of underserved children and people with disabilities through tennis. Blake says his two daughters inspired him to take on the role.
“Hopefully I’ll have a tremendous impact on my own kids’ lives, but now I’m also able to impact others without that close tie of a father-daughter or father-son relationship,” said Blake in an interview at the BNP Paribas Showdown at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, as part of World Tennis Day. “I’m really happy to be a part of something where I can hopefully change lives for the positive and have the future generation, not necessarily come out and be pro tennis players, but be credits to society and have tennis open doors for them.”
Blake took the court—not in tennis gear but in a suit—to espouse the benefits that tennis can have on young people.
“One in three children are at risk for childhood obesity and every 26 seconds a kid drops out of school,” he said. One of the ways the USTA hopes to encourage kids to start playing tennis is through smaller courts and softer balls, to make it more accessible to children. While it’s a challenge to compete against baseball, basketball, football and other sports, Blake said having a group of successful Americans on the pro tour is key for drawing younger players to tennis.
“It would be great to have some young Americans stepping it up, getting tennis on SportsCenter, getting it out there the way Andy did, and the way that Sampras, Agassi and Chang did before,” Blake said.
Although Serena Williams has dominated the women’s side for the last 15 years, no American man has won a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final of the U.S. Open in 2003. Since 2011, Marty Fish and John Isner are the only two American men to crack the ATP Top 10, and neither has ever made a serious run at a major tournament.
Current USTA President, Katrina Adams, has said that changing tennis’s demographics in the United States may be the key to improving the quality of America’s tour players. Adams is the first African-American to hold her position with the USTA, and increasing minority participation is one of her goals for her tenure.
Blake said that introducing more young players from all backgrounds to the sport will only improve the state of American competitive tennis and with a bigger talent pool, the U.S. will “have better odds of having a new champion.”
“Once [kids] are all able to play, I think you’ll see that we’ll find the ones who have the talent and the ability, and we’ll be able to develop them,” he said. “If we give them the opportunities, then they’ll go out and prove what they can do.”
Ranked at No. 20, Isner is America’s top-ranked man on tour, but Blake is optimistic about the state of men’s tennis in America. He said he’s excited about the group of young talent, including Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov, Francis Tiafoe and Noah Rubin, who could eventually contend on tour, and said the next generation of players in Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic could soon break the stronghold of the “Big Four.” But what player does he think will be the next man on tour to win his first Grand Slam title?
“Roger, Novak and Rafa have a bit of a stranglehold now, but a guy like Grigor [Dimitrov] who is still committed to working hard, getting better and being out there on the practice court is going to have success as those guys get a little older,” Blake said.
Though he won’t be playing, Blake will remain involved with tennis as the 2015 season continues in Indian Wells this week and is currently being considered for a player development position with the USTA. But after establishing his own children’s charity after retirement, his focus remains on giving back through tennis.
“It’s been great helping kids with the charitable endeavor I’m a part of now,” he said. “If I could help young adults and adults reach their career goals, whether they become No. 1 in the world or No. 500, if they take their talents and use them the best they can, that to me is exciting and a success.”