Blake's a model of a top ten player
By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine
PARIS -- His plan was to come to Europe, run around in the dirt, smudge up his shirts and socks into a sweaty, grimy maroon mess -- tough duty for an IMG model -- and maybe even learn how to play tennis on the clay. Then he made the quarterfinals in Rome, shocking even himself, and the fun was on.
So it was that when James Blake appeared on Court Philippe Chatrier -- formerly known as Court Central -- on Thursday at the French Open, he seemed much more than a 22-year old novice distinguished by that Harvard University pedigree and those Lenny Kravitz universal dreads. ("He is quite beautiful, the American Noah," said a trembling French journalist -- who happened to be a woman.) And quite a lot different from just another Kournikovian-level sex fox, as well. Especially when Blake recovered from some nervous moments at the beginning of a second-round match against Sebastien Grosjean, in which it took him 22 minutes to win his first game.
From there, Blake matched the French No. 1 drive for volley, up to back, slide against skid for the better part of three hours before losing dramatically (he came back from 1-5 down in the fourth set), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 -- in a possible bid to make the starting lineup for the U.S. Davis Cup team, which will take on Grosjean and France in the September semifinals on this very same Roland Garros site.
A starter? Well, Blake lasted a round longer here than America's senior and junior tennis saviors, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick -- and the other Yankee guy, name of Agassi -- says he ain't playin' the Cup. So....
"I loved the atmosphere, the crowd here. I expected them to be much more harsh. Come back in September?" said Blake, who happens to be undefeated, singles and doubles, in Davis Cup play. "I'd love to do that and show everyone here what I've learned."
And about his near miss on Thursday?
"(Grosjean) has been in a few more of these situations than I have and it showed at the end," Blake said. "He raised his level above himself -- or at least above me. He definitely knows how to play better on this stuff. It was amazing at first even being out there. I came here with my family when I was 12 and couldn't believe how good the players were. But I've come to the realization that I can play with these guys ... on any given day ... on any surface, really," he said. "I finally feel a legitimate part of the tour."
Blake could have fooled folks like Lleyton Hewitt, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, whom he had on the ropes at the U.S. Open last summer. Or Germany's Tommy Haas, world No. 3, whom he wasted 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals of Memphis this winter. Or Andrea Gaudenzi, the veteran Italian who embarrassed Sampras here on Monday, whom he whipped at the Italian Open a few weeks ago. Or even Alex Corretja and Stefan Koubek whom he beat at the Australian Open. Whoops, check that. Blake had Koubek down two sets to love, couldn't put him away, then started flailing away to lose in five.
Which was vaguely similar to what happened in Thursday's perfect conditions in the late afternoon sunshine (finally) on the main stage at Roland Garros. After that shaky start, Blake -- whose older brother, Thomas Jr., plays on the satellite tour after his own career at Harvard -- had solved most of Grosjean's dirtball slices and angles and had an opportunity with several break points in early games to take control and win the key third set.
The two were a study in cultural/geographical role reversal; Blake with his tall, rangy athleticism and his fabulous dreadlocks flying out of his headband looked like the former French champion, Yannick Noah -- he actually was mistaken for Noah and autographed his picture at a tournament in San Jose this year. Across the net, the scruffy, ballcap-backward Mr. Gross Jeans -- the roadrunner from Marseilles who upset Agassi here last year and is seeded tenth this week -- scampered across the clay appearing nothing so much as an American street kid from Brooklyn. Or Des Moines.
Grosjean had played an exhausting three and a half hour match the day before -- and he looked ready to fold early in the third set. But then the former Australian and French semifinalist began ranging far and wide and practically into the neighboring Bois de Boulogne to gather up all of Blake's forehand power and whip it back in kind. "Incredible gets," Blake said. "The guy shocked me with his speed. He moves about as well as anyone on tour. He got to everything." Grosjean fought off breakers in the third and fifth games and broke Blake in the sixth to run out the third set and take a commanding lead in the fourth.
But ... "I had a bit of a lull and the guy was taking all the risks," the Frenchman, struggling with a thigh injury, said of Blake who tied the set at 5-all but then inexplicably lost his serve at love.
"Being American and growing up with the whole 'instant gratification' thing, I'm going for winners too much," Blake said. In the final game Grosjean made a couple of more outrageous saves -- to the extent that a disgusted Blake flung his racquet across the court and at the end smacked a ball clear out of the stadium. Not, of course, in any direction enough to endanger those poor screaming, hearts-be-gone femmes enchantees.
"There are women around the courts? Come on," Blake said afterward, smiling. "I guess there's been attention, but I was hoping it was because of my tennis. ... Hey, I'm young, having fun, doing stupid things with my hair, not really too worried about how I look on court. Anytime I've been complimented on my looks, I usually say you should probably compliment my parents because I had nothing to do with it. It's just their genes."
The Spanish players call Blake "Modelito." But the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., to an African-American father and a British mother and grew up in the leafy glades of Connecticut's Fairfield County (where his dad is a salesman for 3M) usually experiences more razzing concerning "the Haa-vaad jokes in the locker room.
"I understand the stereotype and stigma that goes with that," Blake laughs of the place he left after reaching the NCAA championship match his sophomore year. "But it's just another school, 18, 19 year olds having fun, probably doing some things they shouldn't be doing, like any other place. There are other very intelligent people on tour. I don't feel out of place at all. I've gotten used to the jokes."
His tennis career hasn't been exactly a laughing matter inasmuch as early on Blake was forced to wear a back brace after he was diagnosed with scoliosis at 13. It wasn't until he was 18 that he caught fire in the juniors. But he lost the junior championship match at Kalamazoo, Mich., and the NCAA final, both when he was favored. And in his first two years in the pros he lost every tour-level match but two. Last July, though, Blake reached the semifinals at Newport on grass. And in Cincinnati he got a confidence boost when, after giving Pat Rafter a tough run, the Aussie approached him at net and said: "Now do you believe you can beat me?"
International tennis audiences first probably believed in Blake -- rather than as just another Ivy League Hunk Object -- when he battled Hewitt to a five-set denouement while vomiting three times amid the suffocating heat at Flushing Meadow last September. The fact that the American kid nearly took out the eventual Open champion -- losing 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 -- went virtually unnoticed in the midst of the controversy over Hewitt's tacky, probably racist, outburst against the officials when he was called for a second foot fault in the third set. "Look at him, mate. Look at him," Hewitt shouted at the chair, gesturing toward linesman Marion Johnson, who is black. "You tell me what the similarity is."
Nine months later, the similarity of James Blake to a big time, potential top ten player just grows and grows.
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