James Blake brings his life to the game
Reminiscing about the world’s 17th ranked touring professional—just before this summer’s Wimbledon Grand Slam matches—his former high-school coach, John Honey, confessed to having “one small regret” about their relationship. “I’ve known James on and off the courts for more than 20 years, but he’ll never change. He still won’t call me by my first name. It’s always Mister Honey. What it tells you, I guess, is a lot about his upbringing. Plus the fact that success and celebrity have never gone to his head. He’s still as courteous and deferential with people as he was as a teenager learning the game. I often wonder if James isn’t that way with the likes of Federer or McEnroe or Bud Collins. The thing, or things, about him are style and character.” A quick look at the James Blake résumé makes that abundantly clear. The second son of a mixed-race couple, Tom and Betty Blake, James attended Fairfield High School, became a National Merit Scholar, and, like his older brother, Tom Jr., was admitted to Harvard. Following in Tom’s footsteps on the school’s tennis team, James succeeded by his sophomore year in becoming the nation’s top college player. Determined to make the most of his fast-accelerating skills and ambition, he then dropped out of school, “for the time being,” to turn professional. (Sort of a Bill Gates route-to-fame approach.) Starting in worldwide Challenger Cup matches in 1999, Blake reached the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) number-seven spot in world singles play by 2006. This was seen as all the more remarkable given what Blake had to endure along the way. In 2004, he suffered a broken neck from a practice-session crash into a net pole in Rome. Not long after that, his father’s early death from cancer was another devastating setback, the stress of which brought on a debilitating, paralyzing bout of shingles.
But return to form he did, and by 2006 was named Comeback Player of the Decade by Deuce magazine. “I never expected anything else from a guy with such steel-like determination,” says Coach Honey. “Did you know that all through the time he was learning and playing tennis here, James had to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day to help correct a spinal curvature. That’s just plain guts.”
Fairfield Magazine interviewed Blake the day before he played his first-round Wimbeldon match, which he lost in a close three-set match, to Andreas Seppi. The U.S. Open begins August 31. You referred in an early exchange to “life in the pro-tennis bubble.” What do you mean by that?
Well, at this level of the game you tend to get caught up in a lot of hype and hoopla, media coverage, sponsor events, meetings with fans, and photo shoots. You have to schedule yourself carefully so as not to detract from your practice and conditioning routines—but at the same time, deal with the realities of being on the ATP tour.
Do you enjoy it?
Some of the stuff that’s come my way over the years has been strangely delightful. Men’s fashion spreads, posing in a bathtub of Evian water for a commercial, being interviewed on “60 Minutes” and “Oprah”—and one year having to cope with People’s ‘Sexiest Athlete’ accolade.
Does all the travel help broaden your cultural horizons?
In some ways, but on the tour you actually have very little time for exploring. I did get a thrill out of being in Rome a few years after I got bonked in the head. But the thing is, if you go sightseeing or to museums, four-star restaurants and such, it probably means the tournament isn’t going so well for you.
Do you do a lot of reading on the road?
Oh, yes, that’s always been my routine. Lately, I’ve read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmail, Lucky Man, by Michael J. Fox—and, of course, Obama’s Audacity of Hope. Nor will I ever forget Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace.
Besides Ashe, did you have any other tennis idols as a youngster?
Yes, I had a good number of heroes—Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg for their attitude. And I really liked Jim Courier for his work ethic. Also, let me say that Michael Jordan is the most exciting person I’ve ever met.
About the long pro-tour season and its effect on players—does this concern you?
I’ve been saying for quite some time that the ATP schedule lasts far longer than it should. No other professional sport has 11 months of events. The fact that none of the tournaments wants to give up spots on the calendar makes such a decision very difficult. But to protect the longevity of players, I think it’s a real necessity. Also, coaching should be allowed.
About your J-Block fans, the noted sports writer Frank Deford says they’re “too rowdy.” Any comment?
Putting aside the fact that they’ve buoyed up my spirits and revved up any number of matches from Miami to Melbourne, let me say that the J-Block has been solidly behind one of the most important causes in my life. If you’ll recall, after my dad succumbed to cancer, our family set up the Thomas Blake Sr. Research Fund at Memorial Sloane Kettering in his memory. From the programs connected with the fund—in which J-Block members play a role—more than $1.5 million has been collected. Nothing I’ve ever done has been as satisfying. Dad was a relentless self-improver.
What are some moments you’ll always remember?
Let me think. So many, and they won’t come out in any special order. Being named to the U.S. Davis Cup team for the first time. Getting rid of the dreadlocks—for charity! The kind, sympathetic way Mike Wallace treated me on “60 Minutes.” The fact that Mr. Honey wrote a letter of recommendation to Harvard for me. Visiting Fairfield High and seeing that the courts were named after me. My enduring relationship with coach Brian Barker. Winning ten singles titles from 2002 on; and taking the quarter-final in three sets from Roger Federer in last year’s Beijing Olympics. Wow! A few years back, the ATP honored me with the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.
And, oh yes, there’s knowing that I’ll go back to Harvard some day, get my degree, and keep some other balls in the air in a new career. I also treasure the fact that I was raised as a normal kid, in a loving family—in a town and school system that fostered individuality, lasting friendships, and real-world experiences. That’s a huge difference from what happens if you come up through the tennis academy route.
You’re probably ready to tune us out in favor of your iPod. What’s on it at the moment?
Well, not being a big fan of opera, country, or techno—almost everything else. My rock-star high-school buddy, John Mayer, gets a lot of play. Along with Gavin Degraw, Jay-Z, Eminem, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, and lots more in between.