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The Late Bloomer

Jan. 15, 2007
Jan. 15, 2007

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Jan. 15, 2007

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The Late Bloomer

After years of steady improvement as a player and a competitor, James Blake is suddenly, at age 27, the face of American tennis--and a threat to go deep in Melbourne

Presumably theyteach you plenty at Harvard. But the curriculum doesn't include how to comportyourself like a celebrity. When James Blake arrived at Christina Aguilera's NewYear's Eve party in Manhattan's precious Hudson Hotel, he was decidedly removedfrom his comfort zone. As he craned his neck like an awestruck teenager, tryingto confirm a rumored Jessica Simpson sighting, he bumped into a post, earningsupersized rations of grief from his entourage of running buddies and collegechums. As Blake tried to mingle with other guests, he couldn't keep a straightface when his friends stood behind him and yelled, "Your butt looks hugetonight, James."

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 2007 issue Original Layout

When Blakereluctantly took his turn to gambol down a green carpet, he walked so slowlythat his childhood pal Evan Paushter couldn't resist bodychecking him into arow of paparazzi. Vince Chase, he wasn't.

Forgive Blake ifhe still acts like a novice star, prone to forgetting that he's entitled tostand inside the velvet rope. His narrative was never supposed to break quitethis way. Sure, he grew up comfortable in Fairfield, Conn.--one of the mostmoneyed pockets in the country--and matriculated in the Ivy League, his futurealways pregnant with possibility. But becoming an A-list athlete was never partof the plan. "Trust me, [the trappings of fame] are weird for me too,"Blake says. "I'll never get used to it, much less feel like I deserve it.But if you can't enjoy it, you're in trouble."

A serial latebloomer, Blake suffered from scoliosis and wore a cumbersome back brace 18hours a day as an adolescent; he wasn't a top junior tennis player in the U.S.until his late teens. He figured to be a good college player when he headed toHarvard in 1997, but he improved so dramatically that he left after hissophomore year to turn pro. It took a few years to get some traction on the ATPTour, but his ranking steadily gained altitude. Finally, at 27, an age at whichmost players are either fashioning graceful exit strategies or desperatelyhanging on, Blake has emerged as the hottest player not named RogerFederer.

Mostly on accountof his uninhibited ball striking and his point-prolonging defense, Blake wonfive tournaments in 2006 and, after reaching the finals of the year-end MastersCup, finished the season ranked a career-high No. 4. When the Australian Openbegins on Monday, he will arrive as the highest-ranked American, male orfemale. "It's a good thing the off-season is so short," Blake says."I don't have time to get cocky."

Since he firstset out on tour, Blake has been immensely popular. The combination of hissmarts, good looks and dignified bearing triggered inevitable comparisons withArthur Ashe. Sponsors, the media and the public took to him in equal measure.But perhaps the ultimate validation of his recent ascent is that his label hasbeen upgraded from "great guy and credit to the sport" to simply"damn good player."

Blake's successis a reflection of the current state of men's tennis. His game isn'tremarkable, but a player who executes every shot capably, covers the court,brandishes a weapon--in Blake's case, a heat-seeking forehand--and works hardcan reach the highest plane. And his success couldn't have been better timed.Andre Agassi is retired. Venus and Serena Williams are beset by injury andapathy. Andy Roddick is still recovering the last vestiges of his lost mojo. AsJim Courier, the former champion and now an astute commentator, puts it,"You could absolutely make the case that James Blake is now the face ofAmerican tennis."

In the summer of2004 that face was frozen like a gargoyle's. Blake was already in the throes ofan annus horribilis. In May of that year he had crashed headfirst into the netpost of a court in Rome--a day after meeting the pope!--and cracked a vertebra.That sidelined him for two months. He spent the time with his father, Thomas,who died of stomach cancer that July. Barely a week after the funeral, Blakewoke up with a debilitating case of shingles that paralyzed half his face. Hefigured it was just a cosmetic annoyance. "I'm not vain," he says."As long as I could play tennis, I was willing to look silly." But whenhe practiced he realized that the virus had attacked his vision and balance aswell. "I was hitting with Evan, and he was hitting the ball by me, whichwas a bad sign," Blake recalls. "I'm thinking maybe it's time to goback to school and get a real job."

Unsure he'd everplay again at a high level--his ranking had fallen to 94th--Blake took fourmonths off. The period of inactivity had a galvanizing effect. "I like tosay that breaking my back and getting shingles were the best things thathappened to me," he says. Blake used the downtime to tinker with hisstrokes, fortifying his backhand in particular. But he also took inventory ofthe mental component of his game. "James has always been an ultrahardworker, but with that has come a tendency to get down on himself when thingsaren't going right," says Brian Barker, who's coached Blake since theplayer was a temperamental 12-year-old at the Tennis Club of Trumbull(Conn.).

When Blakefinally returned to the tour in January 2005, he tried to brush aside thelosses, savor the wins and, he says, "appreciate the whole experience ofbeing lucky to play a professional sport for a living." That's meant takingin some sights when he tours the cities of the world. It's meant takingadvantage of his status, be it playing in a celebrity poker event or appearingon Oprah's sofa. It's meant trying to embarrass his support team. Last year,for instance, Blake made a deal with Barker: If Blake won a tournament, Barkerhad to go to the next Grand Slam event dressed as a pirate. Blake did, andBarker did. (Sort of. Barker drew the line at the eye patch, but he did walkaround sporting a gold tooth.) Having lost another bet last fall, Barker isscheduled to arrive in Melbourne this week wearing a handlebar mustache.

If anythingtempers Blake's contentment and sense of accomplishment, it's the supremacy ofFederer--a player Blake has never beaten in six matches. The incomparable Swissstar has transformed the rest of the field into a racket-wielding version ofthe Jordan-era Utah Jazz--that is to say, sensationally talented athletescursed to have been contemporaries of the most gifted practitioner in theirsport's history. "I wasn't there when Pete [Sampras] dominated, but eventhen he wasn't consistently winning three Slams the way Roger is," saysBlake. "People outside the sport say, 'Only a few ranking spots divideyou,' and I think, Yeah, but you don't understand the guy in front ofme."

Can anyone takedown the Mighty Fed? Blake sighs a sigh of resignation. "Look at Borg andMcEnroe, who were so dominant and faltered so quickly. Maybe [Federer] losessome confidence and comes back to the pack. But it's not as if the rest of uscan make a few adjustments and we're right there. This is tough to say as acompetitor, but honestly, he's head and shoulders above [the field] rightnow."

In any other lineof work this kind of candor and thoughtfulness would be considered an asset. Inthe fun-house mirror of tennis it can be perceived as a weakness. If there's aknock on Blake, it's that he's too rational and too, well, nice for his owngood. When he played Federer in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open last summer,he applauded his opponent's winners and uttered compliments on the order of"Too good, Roger," even at the most critical junctures of the match. Tomore than a few observers, this smudged the line between grace andobsequiousness.

"You canthink he's too good, but it's a bit of a cop-out to say it," says Courier."Roger deserves admiration, but imagine if this were the era of Connors andNastase--they'd be in his face, playing mental games. I'd like to see someonetry and put a ball through his chest, not in a disrespectful way but just tosend the message I have the resolve to take you out."

Blake rejects thecriticism. "There's a ton of nice guys on tour, and I still want to beatthe crap out of them," he says. Still, he concedes that one of his biggestprofessional adjustments was to become more selfish. "I won't lie," hesays. "On the court you have to be arrogant and think you're better thanthe other guy. Off the court you try to be the complete opposite and haverespect for people, a curiosity about people. It's not always so easy to pulloff."

He does it well.As Roddick once put it, "Everyone on tour has a mutual friend inJames." Currently vice president of the ATP Player Council, Blake is anobvious candidate to assume a leadership role in tennis one day, cuttingthrough the relentless in-fighting and competing fiefdoms that stunt thesport's growth. The Williams sisters recently went so far as to suggest thatBlake was presidential timber. (Told of this, he smiled sheepishly and thensaid, "I know I would never enter into a preemptive war.") When theride finally ends, he will return to Harvard to finish his degree in economics.As safety nets go, you could do worse. "People think we're all nerds whodon't leave the library, but there is a social scene," Blake says."There are some fun guys and a few cute girls. I'm not going to say it'slike an SEC school, but you'd be surprised."

Given his slowdevelopmental clock, Blake is, even at 27, squarely in his tennis prime. As hesees it, he still has plenty of fruitful years of playing. "It's probablylike this in most jobs," he says, "but I get motivation from knowingthere's still a lot of room to get better at what I do."

Three years agoBlake bought a tasteful Cape Cod--style house in Fairfield a few miles from hisboyhood home, where his mother, Betty, still lives. It's a long forehand fromthe tracks of the Metro North commuter trains that transport lawyers andhedge-fund managers to Manhattan. By all rights Blake should be on board,another well-educated suburbanite making his fortune in the Big City.

But on anunseasonably warm morning last week, he couldn't even hear the trains whippingby the house. Metallica screeching from his iPod, Blake was spending rush houron his treadmill, irrigated in sweat. The fourth-ranked tennis player in theworld was doing some last-minute fitness work before heading to the first GrandSlam event of the season. You could say he was preparing for a businesstrip.

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Blake denies that he's too nice. "There's a ton ofnice guys on tour," he says, "and I still want to BEAT THE CRAP out ofthem."
PHOTOPHOTOPhotograph by Joe McNallyNO PUSHOVER Overcoming a broken back and the death of his dad in 2004 helped make Blake a tougher opponent.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONHIT-AND-RUN Blake can bomb his first serve, but it's his speed and his blistering forehand that make him dangerous.PHOTOFREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGESNO SHANGHAI SURPRISE Federer routed Blake in the Masters Cup final in China.