James Blake

By Zhao Rui
Updated: November 18, 2006

James Blake

James Blake

SHANGHAI—James Blake has a lot to cheer for after coming from nowhere to become the new American idol this season but the hard-stroker believes he can do more.

Having survived the threats that almost ended his career during the past two seasons, Blake is ready to follow the steps of Arther Ashe to be a role model for the world of African-American.

“I feel so much pride every time when people link me to him, he’s obviously been a life-time hero to me,” Blake said of Ashe, one of the most influential tennis stars in history and the first Black man to win the US Open in 1968. “It took a great man and a great athlete like him to do that, to really break the color barrier in tennis and open a door for all the African-American.

“I know I’ve played some very good games and earned some prize money this year but I hope to play a bigger role. We are still a minority. Guys like Ashe are individuals I looked up to, and I want to try and be the same type of example.”

Though modest as always, the 26-year-old New Yorker is already on his way to showing his impact to the world.

In 2006, Blake has had the best season of his career, he became the first African-American to rank in Top 10 since Ashe in 1980 and the very first one at the year-ending Masters Cup in professional era.

His five titles; Sydney, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Bangkok and Stockholm, tied himself with Rafael Nadal for second place in most titles won in 2006, behind ATP World No 1 Roger Federer with 11.

Off the court, Blake, who doesn’t have even a single tattoo on his strong arms, has been voted People Magazine’s Athlete of the Year in 2005 and was signed by IMG Models that same year.

But he contributed his success to an early inspiration of his admired black sensation.

“I can not say this is just because of the effort I paid at tournaments, I mean, I am very lucky to be part of the generation inspired by Ashe in 1980’s. If it wasn’t for him growing up, there’s another possibility I would not have been excited about tennis.

“Now seeing that there’s another generation, kind of looking around, that might be me right now as people 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 I want to be the best role model possible.”

Tough Exerience

His success, however, is not as lucky as he describes.

At the age of 13, Blake was diagnosed with scoliosis, and had to wear a corrective brace 18 hours a day to remedy the curvature of his spine.

Despite having some smooth progress in his early days on the tour, a series of disasters almost put his career to an end in 2004. While practicing at a tournament in Rome, he broke his neck by running into a net-post. In July the same year, he lost his father to stomach cancer (linitis plastica). At the same time, Blake developed shingles that temporarily paralyzed half his face and blurred his sight.

“I am not a man to give up, I always get excited just to see how much more I can improve in order to be the best,” Blake said. “At every level, I just strived to get where I wanted to be.”

With his belief, Blake had recovered from his illness and injury last year and returned to the ATP top 50 from No 210, becoming the selected man to shoulder the task of lifting American men’s tennis.

“I had some tough times, some injuries,” Blake said. “I continued to work hard, and fortunately, I have been able to get better throughout my career.”

Blake secured his qualification of the Masters Cup after the lone remaining contender, Germany’s Tommy Haas (12th), crashed in the last minute of the race, but last-qualifier status doesn’t bother him at the championships.

“Qualifying for the Tennis Masters Cup is already a great accomplishment signifying an all-around good year,” said Blake, who finished the regular ATP season at No 8 with a 14-point lead over No. 9 Mario Ancic of Crotia. “I know every match is a big challenge because I am the lowest-ranked player in the draw, but I have the confidence to play my tennis here.”