Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Blake relishes his role-model opportunities


Rising star encourages young players

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Monday's play
With a pile of dreadlocks atop his head, a charming smile and a polite and intelligent nature, James Blake's popularity with the fans on the ATP Tour is growing.

On Monday at the Western and Southern Financial Group Masters, the 27th-ranked Blake defeated No. 21 Wayne Ferreira of South Africa 6-1, 7-6 (0) in front of Center Court fans holding programs with his picture on the cover.

The 23-year-old is already familiar with publicity after doing some modeling, but his growing image as the poster boy for the American ATP goes a little deeper than a feature in GQ and being named People magazine's "Sexiest Athlete" in December.

It's his background that makes him intriguing. Born to a British mother and African-American father, he is one of a few black players to have played on the Tour. He grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., but trained in nearby Harlem before moving to Fairfield, Conn. Then it was off to Harvard, not pro tennis, for two years.

"I think he appeals to a lot of different demographics," said tournament director Bruce Flory, who helped place Blake's picture - not Andy Roddick's - on the tournament program along with Andre Agassi's.

"The average guy going up the freeway may not know who either (Blake or Roddick) is. ... It's not all rankings of who to promote, it's who can we get a reaction from."

Being a role model is a job Blake takes seriously. Today, for the second year in a row, Blake will meet with 15 children from the Inner City Youth Opportunity program to talk with them about tennis.

"It's just knowing they have plenty of options, that they can do whatever they want," Blake said. "If they see someone like me being successful in tennis, it gives them another option, it doesn't mean they can only look up to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan."

He'd like to become as much of a role model as the legendary Arthur Ashe, who spoke to Blake's youth tennis program.

"It's kind of a dream that one day, someone will be sitting here saying, 'I watched James Blake, and that helped me start playing,' and I take that very seriously," Blake said.

Blake won his first ATP title in Washington in 2002, joining Ashe, Bryan Shelton, and MaliVai Washington, one of Blake's idols, as the fourth African-American man to win an ATP title in the Open era.

After struggles on grass and clay courts this year, Blake returns to the friendlier hard courts at Cincinnati. In 2001, he upset 11th-ranked Arnaud Clement to reach the third round.

Last year, he teamed with Todd Martin to win the doubles title here and in the process, won over the crowd.

"I feel like I'm becoming part of the family," Blake said. "This is definitely a place for me where I feel comfortable, and the fans have a lot to do with that."

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E-mail ckane@enquirer.com.




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