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Blake Standing Tall on His Own
By SELENA ROBERTS
In between the last scraped knee and first razor nick, after Hot Wheels and before car dates, James Blake faced the awkward age of 13 each day by pulling on a pair of jeans, four sizes too big.
No other pants would fit around the bulky back brace that began at his armpits and ended below the waist. No shirt was baggy enough to camouflage the condition that made him different from the other freshmen roaming the halls at Fairfield (Conn.) High School.
There was no hiding scoliosis. Although Blake underwent some positive soul-searching after learning he had curvature of the spine--thankful he wasn't one of the debilitated patients he had seen at a children's hospital--what freshman is comfortable being different?
Being a 13-year-old provides enough oxygen for insecurities as it is.
"My condition definitely made me shy," Blake, now 22, recalled in an interview. "I wondered what people thought. When I was around a full locker room at gym class and had to take my brace off, and deal with that kind of thing, it's nothing most high school students really want to go through."
Except for six liberating hours each day, when he was free to play tennis and sprawl out to do his homework, Blake was a captive of his brace for four years.
"He never complained about having to wear that thing in the hot weather or the fact he had to sleep in it," Blake's mother, Betty, said. "Actually, I'm finding out now that he did have some social issues."
Now it is even harder to imagine Blake as an inhibited teenager. Three years after playing tennis for Harvard, two years removed from the challenger circuit, and one year after nearly upsetting Lleyton Hewitt at the United States Open, Blake will return to Queens next week fresh from a photo shoot for Vogue.
These days, he is comfortable in his own skin--within reason. Before he posed for Sports Illustrated Women's swimsuit edition this spring, he had one demand: no Speedo, please.
Reaching the top 30 on Tour a week ago, the teenager who wanted to disappear at recess has morphed into an attention-getting player who has the fan base of ice cream. Almost everybody likes him. "I don't know where James learned to be the man that he is, but I have a lot of respect for him," Andre Agassi said. "He's a great, great guy."
Few would argue. Blake has a lucrative modeling contract, but he hasn't pouted since his self-described whiny childhood days on the courts of Harlem. He has the intellect of a Cambridge man, but Blake talks to children on their level.
Few can begrudge fame to a player who has leapt 100 spots in the ranking over the past year, distinguishing himself with a wicked forehand and dreadlocks that would make Yannick Noah proud. Many parents would be preening in the reflective glory of their pop-star son. A few wouldn't.
"I've never been too impressed with fame," Betty Blake said. "It's not anything too important to me, but I'm glad it's happening to him. It could end just as quickly tomorrow; so I just hope he keeps a level head about it. We keep him humble. I think he can handle it. I remind him of how things used to be."
Blake was born in Yonkers, where his parents met on the city courts. Before James turned 7, the family moved to Connecticut, to a home on the border between Bridgeport and Fairfield. The Blakes may have been viewed as different by some because of their diversity-- Betty is a white former British athlete and Thomas is a black salesman for 3M--but they were ordinary tennis buffs. The parents loved the game and passed that on to their children.
As a classic tag-along, James followed his older brother Thomas to Harlem, where they attended tennis clinics for elementary students with good grades. On occasion, a guest speaker came by to instruct the group. One day, Arthur Ashe dropped in.
"Arthur Ashe was someone I learned more and more about as I grew up," said Blake, who now volunteers his time to give lessons in Harlem. "I appreciate everything he did. He made it possible to overshadow a great tennis career by being a good person, a humanitarian and a social activist."
Without banging a fist, Ashe created change within the system, choosing grace over grandstanding when confronted with injustice. Drawing comparisons to the man who has inspired him, Blake handled a controversy in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium last year at the United States Open with similar deftness.
As Blake played the match of his career, ahead of the eventual champion two sets to one, Hewitt made what was perceived to be a remark with racial overtones during a third-set changeover.
Hewitt was seen pointing to an African-American linesman, while complaining to the chair umpire. "Look at him! Look at him!" Hewitt yelled. "You tell me what the similarity is." As he complained, Hewitt appeared to motion in the direction of Blake. A set later, Blake's legs began cramping on the court. With a dehydrated Blake wobbling to the finish, Hewitt won the five-set second-round match, then denied race had anything to do with his argument to the umpire.
Instead of leaving Hewitt to twist, Blake offered him the benefit of the doubt, saying his opponent had made the comments in the heat of the match. Blake had made his point, without fanning the issue.
"That was just an uncomfortable situation for everybody," said Andy Roddick, Blake's good friend and Davis Cup teammate. "I can't say if Lleyton meant it or if he was trying to do something.
"It wasn't perceived well. You give a fellow player the benefit of the doubt, but we were all pretty sympathetic to James because he was the one that it happened to. But no one could have handled it better. James is a class act."
Alongside Roddick, Blake has become a stiff dose of good vibes for a Tour struggling to find its identity as the Sampras-Agassi era nears a final curtain. A true revival only comes with winning, though.
With a 5-0 Davis Cup mark, and counting the upsets he has scored this year against top players--like Agassi last night in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic semifinals in Washington and the third-ranked Tommy Haas--many tennis officials and players believe Blake has enough athletic ability, nerve and savvy to perch next to Roddick in the top 10.
Blake believes in his ability, too. Instead of remembering the Hewitt match for its link to controversy, Blake took confidence from how close he came to upsetting the No. 1 player in the world.
"I felt like I was playing as well or better than him before I started cramping and my body gave out," Blake said. "Extending the eventual champion to five sets and playing such high-level tennis there made me feel like on any given day I can play with the best in the world. So why shouldn't I feel like I'm a part of the Tour now?"
There is a gratitude in this epiphany, because Blake knows what it's like not to belong. High school wasn't that long ago, but, as usual, Blake talks about his scoliosis treatment as if a child is listening somewhere.
"To anyone who has to go through it, I'd say don't worry about it," he said.
"I could have come out of my shell earlier if I had been more self-confident, and let people see me for who I was. Of course, it's easy to look back and say that, but it's awfully tough to do when you're just 13 and trying to fit in."
The Tennis Refuge
You will be missed, Michel Kratochvil!