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The Late Bloomer
January 15, 2007
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
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January 15, 2007

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

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Presumably they teach you plenty at Harvard. But the curriculum doesn't include how to comport yourself like a celebrity. When James Blake arrived at Christina Aguilera's New Year's Eve party in Manhattan's precious Hudson Hotel, he was decidedly removed from his comfort zone. As he craned his neck like an awestruck teenager, trying to confirm a rumored Jessica Simpson sighting, he bumped into a post, earning supersized rations of grief from his entourage of running buddies and college chums. As Blake tried to mingle with other guests, he couldn't keep a straight face when his friends stood behind him and yelled, "Your butt looks huge tonight, James."

When Blake reluctantly took his turn to gambol down a green carpet, he walked so slowly that his childhood pal Evan Paushter couldn't resist bodychecking him into a row of paparazzi. Vince Chase, he wasn't.

Forgive Blake if he still acts like a novice star, prone to forgetting that he's entitled to stand inside the velvet rope. His narrative was never supposed to break quite this way. Sure, he grew up comfortable in Fairfield, Conn.--one of the most moneyed pockets in the country--and matriculated in the Ivy League, his future always pregnant with possibility. But becoming an A-list athlete was never part of 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 late bloomer, Blake suffered from scoliosis and wore a cumbersome back brace 18 hours 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 to Harvard in 1997, but he improved so dramatically that he left after his sophomore year to turn pro. It took a few years to get some traction on the ATP Tour, but his ranking steadily gained altitude. Finally, at 27, an age at which most players are either fashioning graceful exit strategies or desperately hanging on, Blake has emerged as the hottest player not named Roger Federer.

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

Since he first set out on tour, Blake has been immensely popular. The combination of his smarts, good looks and dignified bearing triggered inevitable comparisons with Arthur 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 has been upgraded from "great guy and credit to the sport" to simply "damn good player."

Blake's success is a reflection of the current state of men's tennis. His game isn't remarkable, but a player who executes every shot capably, covers the court, brandishes a weapon--in Blake's case, a heat-seeking forehand--and works hard can 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 and apathy. Andy Roddick is still recovering the last vestiges of his lost mojo. As Jim Courier, the former champion and now an astute commentator, puts it, "You could absolutely make the case that James Blake is now the face of American tennis."

In the summer of 2004 that face was frozen like a gargoyle's. Blake was already in the throes of an annus horribilis. In May of that year he had crashed headfirst into the net post 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, Blake woke up with a debilitating case of shingles that paralyzed half his face. He figured 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 when he practiced he realized that the virus had attacked his vision and balance as well. "I was hitting with Evan, and he was hitting the ball by me, which was a bad sign," Blake recalls. "I'm thinking maybe it's time to go back to school and get a real job."

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

When Blake finally returned to the tour in January 2005, he tried to brush aside the losses, savor the wins and, he says, "appreciate the whole experience of being lucky to play a professional sport for a living." That's meant taking in some sights when he tours the cities of the world. It's meant taking advantage of his status, be it playing in a celebrity poker event or appearing on 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, Barker had to go to the next Grand Slam event dressed as a pirate. Blake did, and Barker did. (Sort of. Barker drew the line at the eye patch, but he did walk around sporting a gold tooth.) Having lost another bet last fall, Barker is scheduled to arrive in Melbourne this week wearing a handlebar mustache.

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