Tennis Prose



Biofile Classic: James Blake (2003)

By Scoop Malinowski

Status: Member U.S. Davis Cup Team. Finished last year ranked No. 28 and won his first ATP title in Washington.
Ht: 6-1 Wt: 170
DOB: December 28, 1979 In: Yonkers, NY
Childhood Heroes: “Does it have to be in tennis? I’d say Michael Jordan impressed me with how he got ready for every game. And he had to show everyone he was the best every time he stepped on that court.”
Nicknames: “Junior. JB. Squirt Gun – luckily that was short-lived. On the Harvard team, most of the guys had nicknames. One guy gave most of the guys their nicknames. And my brother (Thomas) was Tommy Gun. So the first time I came up for a visit – I was 5′ 4″, a little kid – and so they called me Squirt Gun.”
Hobbies/Interests: “Play golf – I’m not that good but it’s a lot of fun. Play some basketball.”
Favorite Movies: “Braveheart, Good Will Hunting.”
Musical Tastes: “R&B, rap, classic rock, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Master P, Snoop Doggy Dogg, John Mayer, Brandy, R Kelly.”
Early Tennis Memory: “Hmmm, let’s see. Winning my first New England Open when I was 11, at Brown University in Rhode Island. I was really happy. At the time it seemed so important.”
Childhood Dream: “Being at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon or the French Open. Things I dreamed about. I’d go to the U.S. Open every year as a kid. One or two years I might have even snuck in!
First Job: “Paperboy for the Bridgeport Post (age 10). I did it for five years. That was a lot of fun. My brother and I shared the route.”
First Car: “Hand-me-down from my brother, which was already bought used. A 1987 crimson Toyota Celica with dents all over it. The stereo barely worked. Put a sticker on it and called it The Harvard Mobile.”
Funny Tennis Memory: “The first time Thomas and I played doubles together was at the U.S. Open in qualies (’97). We didn’t think we were gonna get a wildcard. So we were actually out on the first tee, ready to tee off, in Trumbull, CT. And I didn’t even think to call down to see if we got a wildcard. And we were playing with my coach and another Harvard teammate. And they said, ‘You might as well just call before we go out.’ So I call down and go back and tell them I think we might only get in nine holes because we have to be down in New York in an hour and a half. They thought I was kidding. So we have to run to the car, run home and change into our clothes. We flew down here. We ended up getting down and the match was delayed. We didn’t even think we were gonna play. We ended up playing a great match, we lost 7-6 in the third to Davide Sanguinetti and another player I forget his name. And it was a lot of fun.”
Pre-Match Feeling: “Try to get a game plan pretty early. Before I go out to a match, I think about how I’m going to play and think about the feeling of winning it. I always want to think about that feeling. So it’s never a surprise. I don’t want to be surprised to win.
Favorite Meal: “Just pizza.”
Favorite Breakfast Cereal: “Golden Grahams.”
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: “Pralines and cream. No, sorry, now it’s double fudge brownie.”
Greatest Sports Moment: “Every match I win is a pretty big deal for me. I never really expected any of this. I didn’t really set goals to be like top 50 or anything like that. I was going to college, planning on going for four years. So this is all just a lot of fun for me. I feel like I’m getting better every day. My best win ever was probably over Andre Agassi in Washington. The U.S. Open is a big deal for me. There’s nothing more important to me than the U.S. Open and Davis Cup. Playing for your country – you put your heart into it. When I hear ‘Advantage, USA’ or ‘Game, USA,’ you realize you’re not playing tennis for yourself.”
Most Painful Moment: “Every time I lose a match I think, This is a terrible feeling. I don’t want it any more. But it’s still tennis, it’s still fun. Like Jimmy Connors said, his favorite thing in the world is to go out and win a tennis match. His second favorite is to go out and lose a tennis match.”
Favorite Athletes To Watch: “Americans in tennis – Sampras, Agassi, Roddick, Todd Martin – he’s always been kind of a favorite of mine. Randy Moss. Shaq – incredible. Mike Piazza and the Mets. Tiger Woods. I love seeing everything he’s gone through. Sometimes I feel bad for the things he has to deal with. But I also have to understand that’s the way he chose and he brought it on himself by doing so well. Roy Jones Jr. Tyson back in the day. Just ran through people. Women’s tennis? I can’t say I follow it that much. But maybe I did like watching Steffi Graf. Seemed like a really great person and someone that was going to be nice no matter what happened. A great champion. Another great champion was Patrick Rafter. He’s a class act, someone I admire a lot. I played him two years ago in (3rd round at) Cincinnati (lost 7-6 (9-7), 6-2 after defeating Arnaud Clement and Julien Boutter). After the match, he was telling me, ‘You could have beaten me today. You could beat me on any given day. It’s just that maybe you didn’t believe you could.’ For him to say that to me…he didn’t need to. He could have just said he played horribly. He was worrying about playing the rest of the tournament, he had a million friends in the locker room, not like he needed one more. He was just helping out a kid that was struggling with his confidence. He really helped me a lot that day. Until then I didn’t feel that I belonged on the ATP Tour at all. After that, I started thinking, Maybe he’s right, maybe I do belong out here. Now I realize I can play with those guys. Patrick really made a difference in my career.”
Closest Tennis Friends: “Mardy Fish is probably my best friend on the tour. But I’m friends with a lot of the guys…Jan Michael Gambill. Paul Goldstein. Robby Ginepri. Andy Roddick. Patrick McEnroe. I think Patrick is a perfect blend of being friends with all the guys, a great guy to hang out with in the locker room. But also someone we know we have to take advice from. When it comes down to business time, he’s going to be the leader and he’s done a great job.
People Qualities Most Admired: “Honesty. Someone who’s gonna be with you from beginning to end no matter what happens. Someone you can always count on.”

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  • Hartt · January 30, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Scoop, thanks for this interesting Biofile. I read Blake’s autobiography some time ago and he came across as an intelligent, gracious guy, so I hope he was really like that in person. The story about Pat Rafter encouraging him is terrific.

    I remember his last singles match. Am surprised it was televised because it was on an outer court at some unearthly late hour. It seemed a crummy way to treat a successful American player after he’d announced he was retiring.

    I don’t usually feel emotional when a player who has had a long career retires, but I did feel awful during Blake’s interviews at that USO. He was so eloquent it seemed like tennis was suffering a real loss with his retirement.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 30, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Hartt: Yes Blake has always been a class act – I first interviewed Blake at his first US Open in singles when he lost to Chris Woodruff 626262 and he was still unknown and he was great to chat with then and I also just interviewed Blake three weeks ago about Facing Andy Murray – Patrick Rafter has equal class – Many great experiences interviewing Rafter throughout his career as well – Two of the very nicest –

  • Andrew Miller · January 31, 2017 at 12:37 am

    Scoop had no idea the origin of Blake’s most famous quote regarding believing in his tennis came from your biofile. Classic!
    I remember Scoop once said that Blake instead of playing with a controlled intensity went all out every shot blast em up style because that’s what he felt gave him the best chance to win no matter who he played. Hard to argue with that. Sometimes I’d wince at shot selection but it’s what worked for him and he felt the game was more on his Racquet.
    At a time when most thought AndyR. was the top American there’s Blake at number four.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 31, 2017 at 8:31 am

    True Andrew and Biofiles often reveal significant scoops – Andy murray’s love for boxing was revealed in a Biofile in 2005 and that personal info became well known years later – Blake also late said that he actually bent to the will of the critics and tried to play finesse defensive tennis but the results were awful for him so he stuck to his guns and played tennis his way – I remember prominent critics like even Fred Stolle criticized Blake’s tactics and there was a lot of media pressure on Blake to play differently but Blake stuck to his guns and carved out a fantastic career –

  • Andrew Miller · January 31, 2017 at 9:24 am

    Scoop yes I remember I think Blake making the Aussie QF in 2007 (?) with Pat McEnroe emphasizing in a post match interview with Blake on the need to play with something like controlled intensity, basically unleashing his game only at critical moments. As Blake was in a slam quarters playing his brand of tennis for the most part i think PMACs advice didn’t really match up. In the end I felt Blake lost a lot of winnable matches to virtual uknowns at slams, didn’t have much success at Wimbledon as his game didn’t translate well or her was poorly coached for the grass, but Blake would say in his defense you win some you lose some.
    Hard to argue with that one. It was messy but sometimes astonishing how well he could play or how easily it could come apart.
    Probably the best example in us tennis of a player turning his backhand into a real weapon of a tennis stroke. He made it so solid. Others I’d say turned their backhands around in recent memory are Ryan Harrison, now the owner of a very reliable and versatile shot, and Coco?
    Blake’s at the top of the Americans for sure on making his backhand more than a placeholder.

  • Andrew Miller · January 31, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Maybe Coco’s backhand has been solid for a while. I liked how she could move it around and generate pace, angles, etc. Like a forehand almost.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 31, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Blake was a very good grass court player at times – he did get to the final of Queens where he lost to Andy murray but Blake also had a few tough losses on grass and other favorable surfaces – Hit or miss player – Blake played like a gunman in a shootout at the OK Corral – he gave tennis a lot of amazing tennis matches – he was always fun to watch and was good enough to win ten titles from 2002-2007 –

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 31, 2017 at 9:42 am

    Coco has it all and she absolutely looks like a player who will be in the top ten or five and who can win a major title – The wins over Bouchard muguruza and Kerber in Australia proved there is no limit to what Coco can win in singles –

  • jg · January 31, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    One of the Pros where I play has his students study videos of the Blake return of serve. I watched a few and Blake really did have great form on the return.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 31, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    Jg: I actually remember watching Blake practicing his returns at the US Open repeatedly hitting the backhand return from the ad court cross court over and over and over – Funny the little things that stick in your mind –

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 31, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Was playing tennis at Longboat Key Club today and ran into old friend Tony Driscoll who is the Sarasota Open tournament director and he told me that he had spoken with Taylor Fritz this week about possibly playing the event in late April and also talked with Sam Querrey today about playing – The Sarasota Open will be played at a new site this year about a mile from the Img academy at a different academy at El Conquistador – The tournament was a huge success at Longboat Key Club but two years ago it was moved to Lakewood Ranch which is a good 30 miles west near Hwy 75 but a lot of the people on the Key were not happy about the long trek to Lakewood Ranch – Sarasota Open is a fantastic event that has featured Nishikori Kyrgios Blake Querrey Sock Johnson Young Peers etc in the past –

  • Thomas Tung · February 1, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    James Blake. Good, if inconsistent forehand (lack of spin and angles negated the effectiveness of its power, making it a one-trick pony that clever/canny opponents could dial into). Inconsistent backhand. Hot and cold return (he would go through streaks of great returns in one match, followed by a ton of errors in the next). No real game plans other than “baseline attack”, but he was nowhere near Agassi’s level of talent. Had the tendency to mistake athleticism with footwork/anticipation (more a fault of his coaches), which meant that he was very very poor on the defensive. Briefly at #4. Generally poor results at the Slams for a Top 10 player, except for 2 US Open QF and 1 Aussie QF — and, like virtually all Americans in that era, horrible clay-court results (his overall firepower was nowhere near that of Robin Soderling, for example, and he lacked Soderling’s usage of heavily spun “safety shots” to get him out of trouble). Even more crucially, never a genuine contender in the Masters Series (made 2 finals and the finals of the Masters Cup, but thoroughly beaten all three times by a certain R.Federer). Fun to watch when on, but lack of versatility in his game meant that Blake had a considerably lesser career than, say Roddick (who was also not known for his versatility, but was exceptionally mentally tough, and had the good sense to hire coaches who pushed his game to higher levels, unlike Blake, who wanted a feel-good facilitator [more than a coach] for his game — Blake never showed the desire to make the major (even minor) improvements that he badly needed (due to a hypersensitivity to any sort of criticism), as Pat McEnroe detailed very well in his book, “Courtside Confidential”.

    In other words, there was a really big drop-off between Roddick and the rest of the American players. Fish was probably the most talented (of a flawed lot), but not particularly mentally tough, nor did he make physical fitness a priority until very late into his career (which still, finally [sigh], got him into the Top 10, and that says a LOT about Fish, his talents, and his lack of honing his talents, in general).

    Sampras was always quite professional in how he approached the game (in his biography, he mentions how he learned/was inspired by working out with Ivan Lendl early in his career, and how it taught him the sacrifices needed to be at the pinnacle). Agassi shaped up and was in tip-top physical and [even more importantly] mental condition during the latter part of his career. Chang and Courier were always workhorses; Courier, arguably, even too much so.

    In short? The Americans from Roddick’s era onwards don’t have a whole ton of excuses, especially given the examples of hard work that they could see in front of them from their “heroes”. It’s why I don’t usually watch American players for more than a half-hour at the US Open qualies (except if the match happens to be intriguing/good). I already know what to expect, and the one exception to the rule, Donald Young (who DOES understand how to construct/play points without it seeming like he is frying his brain/studying for the MCAT), unfortunately doesn’t have a single outright weapon with which to close out points easily, consistently, and routinely (Joker, for example, does everything very well, too, but has that backhand/return combo in his favor).

    Vince Spadea, in comparison, looks like a shining beacon in terms of results (far lesser talent, but well understood the CONSISTENT, long-term effort needed to be a top 50 or better pro — Vince was a true gritty grinder, who had a number of surprising upsets over more highly-touted players).

    As for Nick Kyrgios? Even more “American” than the American players, he is more of a “performer” than an athlete at this point in time. In a team sport, he’d be a big star (much like his close buddy J.Sizzle, aka J.Sock, aka Mickey Mantle reincarnated). In tennis? This is an individual sport where fans (like us) scrutinize relentlessly, and you can only hide so much (from both fans and other players). If you can’t take the punches, do us all a favor (including yourself) and don’t play.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 1, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    T2: Are you suggesting Blake was ignorant about enhancing his one dimensional predictable game? 🙂 I always thought Blake could have been a very good defensive player if he decided to work on those tactics but for some reason he just did not have the flexibility or instinct to play that way – We can question Blake all we want but I think Blake knew what was best for his career – He said he tried to play finesse / defense but the results were awful so he reverted back to the style he felt most comfortable with –

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 1, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    T2: Kyrgios does not want it enough – if he ever decides he wants it to the point of total obsession and that he wants it more than any player out there only then will we see his full potential – But it just may not be in Nick’s nature to lay it all on the line –

  • Krzysztof · February 1, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    I was spectator during Roland Garros 2012 when Blake played vs Youzhny and lost in straight sets. After the match despite being really upset he came to me to sign his autobiography. When I said “Good luck at US Open” he just sighed sadly “Mhm”. A year later during his last Wimbledon I was in the stands once again after his win versus De Bakker, and I cried to him “I believed in you James”, and James laughed and posed with me to a photo taken by my wife! A good guy, typical pal from neighborhood!

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 1, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    Those are nice close encounters Krzysztof thank you for sharing – Pretty sure there a lot of those nice experiences involving Blake with many other tennis lovers – Blake is a very well liked guy and he got along with most pros though he did have that incident with Fernando Gonzalez at the Olympics regarding if Gonzalito touched the ball which the Chilean denied which ultimately cost Blake an Olympic medial – Both players will be competing against each other again at the Delray Beach event and it will be interesting to see if they have mended those differences –



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