|Thursday, February 6
Updated: February 7, 4:51 PM ET
A product of change
By Greg Garber
Thomas Blake picked up a tennis racket for the first time in 1966, when he was stationed in Turkey with the U.S. Air Force. His friend Ray Pitts agreed to teach him the refined game if he would reciprocate and school him in the finer points of basketball.
"Somebody had a portable TV plugged into a car," Blake remembered. "We saw he was winning and we all gathered around to watch. When he won, it was exhilarating for all of us."
Thomas and his wife Betty, who met on a tennis court in Yonkers, N.Y., taught their sons to love the game, too.
"He used to hit with (my brother) Thomas and I all the time when we were growing up," said James Blake, who is ranked No. 24 in the ATP Champions race. "It's pretty fortunate that Arthur Ashe inspired people like my dad and, obviously, indirectly, and then directly inspired me."
If Ashe hadn't provided that example, James said it is possible that he wouldn't be playing tennis today, and the United States would be without its most experienced Davis Cup player on this year's team.
Blake, 25, is intent on returning the favor. He's coming off his best Grand Slam performance, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open. He and Serena Williams recently won the Hopman Cup for the United State.
On Friday, 10 years and one day after Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia, Blake leads the U.S. Davis Cup team into its first-round match in Zagreb, Croatia.
Blake is 7-1 in Davis Cup play and has seven more international matches than his teammates Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri, combined. Andy Roddick, suffering from tendonitis in his right wrist and forearm, was unable to play.
"A changing of the guard with our Davis Cup team is complete," captain Patrick McEnroe said. "It's time for the young guys to step up, and they have. Now, it's time for them to take over.
"I think (Blake) realizes that he can be a great player. It's been nice to seem him progress from, in my first tie as a Davis Cup captain (2001), as a practice player who was really struggling with his confidence ... (to) someone that is fully capable of being a top-10 player."
Since Ashe broke the color barrier on the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1963, MaliVai Washington and Blake are the only other African-Americans to play on the team.
"It's a little weird," Blake said, "since I definitely feel like I'm the one still learning. Just last year, I was the brand-new kid and the rookie on the team, and now I'm considered the veteran."
Blake emerged, quite suddenly, as a proficient professional in 2002. His Wimbledon debut ended in the second round, but he extended former champion Richard Krajicek to an 11-9 fifth set. He reached his first ATP finals in Memphis and Newport, then broke through with a victory in Washington. Blake beat Alex Corretja, Paradorn Srichaphan and Andre Agassi in the process.
"It has been kind of a quick jump," said James' brother, Thomas, who is No. 290 in the ATP rankings. "After a while, he just shot up. The same thing happened in college and in juniors. It took him a while to where he started to believe he could play with those guys.
"We've grown up with tennis, watched all the stars on TV. The first time you play (Patrick) Rafter, how are you supposed to believe you can beat Rafter? And then you discover you can play with those guys."
Tracing an upward arc
"Being in an interracial marriage, they went through much more than I'll ever know," Blake said. "When I was younger, the parents of one of the kids playing tennis once told my mom, 'It's really unfortunate. Your son is in the middle. He can be hated by both blacks and whites.'
If his race left him at odds with a career in tennis, what about the malady that left his spine dangerously curved? At the age of 13, Blake was diagnosed with scoliosis; he spent 18 hours a day in the grip of a wire back brace. And yet, he persevered and became the nation's No. 1-ranked high school player. He followed his brother Thomas to Harvard University and, after becoming the nation's No. 1-ranked college player, he turned professional in 1999.
Oddly enough, his performance during and following a loss elevated him -- defined him, really -- more than any of his notable victories.
In the crucible of a five-set match at the 2001 U.S. Open, Lleyton Hewitt implied that a black linesman was favoring Blake in his calls. Blake, who lost that match after leading two sets to one, chose to give the Australian the benefit of the doubt regarding the accusation. A year later, when the No. 1 Hewitt defeated Blake in another five-set match in Flushing, the two athletes diffused a charged atmosphere with a moving display of sportsmanship.
Today, Blake is a legitimate, marketable professional athlete. He is under contract with the modeling agency, IMG Models, and in 2002 was named the sexiest athlete in People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue.
"I think it's funny," Blake said. "What I don't relish is all the jokes in the locker room. It's something that I never expect(ed) and never really took seriously.
"It's never taken away from my tennis. If it interferes with my tennis, it's not going to get done. It's funny how quickly it's changed. A year and a half ago, anytime something would be offered to me, it was generally, 'Yeah, no problem.' Now, due to the fact that I'm going deeper into draws, I don't have the same amount of time. There are times when you just have to say no."
Passing it on
"You've probably never heard me make a ranked statement because I've never really set those goals," Blake said. "I want to improve and just get better and better. As far as what it will take to get to the top 10, I think it's just going to take more hard work. I'm learning that every match I play, being in those situations, I think that makes the biggest difference in my game. I'm just going to keep learning, and I feel like I'm learning every time I step on the court."
This is, it appears, a family trait.
Thomas Blake, the elder, still can't seem to play enough tennis. On a recent evening -- after making the commute to and from New York City -- he left his home in Fairfield, Conn., around 9 p.m. and played for two hours at the Tennis Club of Trumbull -- the same club at which James and Thomas honed their game while attending high school.
Every December, James and Thomas host a clinic at the armory on West 143rd Street in New York. It is their way of thanking the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, where they first learned the game. John McEnroe and Patrick McEnroe have attended in the past. Recently, James Blake made an appearance at an Austin, Texas, charity event hosted by Jim Courier. He regularly donates equipment to charity auctions.
"I'm very inspired by the fact that (Ashe) inspired my dad," Blake said. "And now seeing there's a next generation, kind of looking around, that might see me as the African-American in tennis, and to think that maybe there's some kids out there, or someone who never thought about tennis now might be thinking about tennis because they see me playing it.
"It's definitely something I take seriously and that's why I want to be the best role model that I can."
And pass along the legacy that Ashe left behind.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com