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
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
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."
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
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
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.