James Blake is as affable and self-possessed a tennis player as there is. Name another pro who thanks the ball kids each time they toss him a ball. But disparage his favorite TV show, The Simpsons, and you do so at your own peril. "I hate when people say, 'How can you like a cartoon?' " says Blake, who just finished the book The Gospel According to the Simpsons. "If you get past the slapstick, it's so clever. Just give it some time and get used to it."
That's the approach Blake has taken with his career. In his first two years on tour since leaving Harvard after his sophomore season in 1999, he won just three main-draw ATP matches. Subsisting—barely—on wild cards, qualifying draws and challenger circuit matches, he was ranked in the triple-digit hinterlands. Still, he never thought much about switching the channel and returning to school. "My attitude was that as long as I felt I was improving and was gradually getting more confident, the wins would come," he says.
Blake's star turn came at last fall's U.S. Open. In the second round he nearly took out eventual champ Lleyton Hewitt before wilting in the fifth set. ( Blake garnished his superb tennis by showing exceptional poise and grace afterward, effectively letting Hewitt off the hook for a racially tinged outburst during the match.) Confidence begat confidence, and, to borrow from another Blake, he has continued burning bright in 2002. Endowed with an athletic, all-court game and a weapons-grade forehand, Blake, 22, has beaten players like Alex Corretja, Tommy Haas and Fabrice Santoro and infiltrated the top 40 of the ATP Champions Race. What's more, he has become a Davis Cup stalwart. Last Saturday in Houston, Blake partnered with Todd Martin to win the crucial doubles point as the U.S. defeated Spain in a quarterfinal tie. (The Americans will play France on its home soil in the semis in September.) "James's improvement has been dramatic," says American captain Patrick McEnroe, "but the best part is that I don't think he's hit a plateau yet."
Blake assumed his intelligence would be an asset as a pro, but he had to learn not to overthink on the court. One of tennis's myths is that it's a physical version of chess. While strategy and courtcraft help, the most successful practitioners tend not to have many conflicting thoughts rolling around in their heads. "There are definitely players who are at 6-5,30-all in the third set and they're too clueless to understand that it's a big point," says Blake, who plans to return to Harvard to get an economics degree when his career is over. "It doesn't come naturally, but I'm learning to simplify things."
The son of a British mother, Betty, and an African-American father, Tom, Blake moves easily between worlds and cultures. He grew up in Fairfield, Conn., one of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S., but on Sundays, James, his brother, Thomas, 25, and their dad volunteered at tennis clinics in Harlem. "It was no big deal," says James. "I had my Fairfield friends and my Harlem friends." Now that's he suddenly the most highly regarded minority ATP player since Mai Washington, he faces additional pressure. "I hope I can be looked at as another young American," he says, absently running a hand through his dreads, "but I understand there are people who will be more inclined to watch me because they can relate to me more. And I realize that there haven't been many top players who look like I do."
Another difference between Blake and the run-of-the-mill pro: He fully appreciates the charmed existence top tour players lead. "Trust me," he says. "We have no reason to complain." This was thrown into particularly sharp relief last month, after Blake had tuned top 20 player Guillermo Canas to reach the fourth round of the NASDAQ-100 in Miami. Upon returning to his hotel Blake read an e-mail sent by an old Harvard friend, Chris Verdini, who had just turned in a 40-page brief and was lamenting his life as an overworked law student at Virginia. In closing Verdini wrote, "What's up with you, James?" Blake pondered the question. Let's see, I played tennis in the sun for a while today; I probably made $20,000; got a massage; I'm driving around in a Mercedes the tournament is lending me; now I'll take a nap and decide where to go to dinner on South Beach tonight. He spared his friend the gruesome details and responded simply, "Life is good, man."