NEW YORK — It was an ugly incident last year at the United States Open tennis championships. In the second round, James Blake, an obscure young American, was matching Australian superstar Lleyton Hewitt blow for blow.
When Hewitt was called for a foot fault at a crucial juncture, he commented that the linesman was African American, just like Blake. The implication was that the call had been made out of racial favoritism.
Hewitt went on to win a match of attrition in the fifth set and eventually become No. 1 in the world. Blake publicly dismissed the incident and was praised for being a nice guy about it.
Lost in the shuffle, however, was the fact that Blake emerged as a big-time player on that day in Queens, N.Y. He has since risen to a ranking of 40th in the world, become a key member of the US Davis Cup team, and taken the podium alongside Andy Roddick as the immediate future of US men's tennis. Never mind that he's the best black male player since Mal Washington, a Wimbledon finalist in 1996 and still only 22 years old.
"I was winning that match two sets to one, and I was in control," Blake said this week while in New York for a US Tennis Association event. "I could have beaten Hewitt. That gave me a lot of confidence. Now I feel like I can play with anyone in the world."
Tennis officials and coaches praise Blake for having an excellent all-court game. Many expect him to break the top 20 this season. He's extremely athletic and can play an attacking game at the net or rally from the baseline with his strong forehand.
He's firmed up his backhand, which was once considered a major liability, says Patrick McEnroe, the captain of the US Davis Cup team, which will play France in the semifinals in September.
"His hard work has really paid off in the last year," says McEnroe, brother of former world No. 1 John McEnroe and a former pro himself. "He's gone from a practice player to a 'go to' guy that we can really count on in the big matches."
Blake seems to welcome the attention that comes with being an emerging star. He's signed a modeling contract he appeared in ads for Kenneth Cole and DKNY and he hobnobs easily with the jet set. With his gravity- defying dreadlocks, he bears a resemblance to rock star Lenny Kravitz, whom he dressed up as for Halloween. At a recent publicity event, he even rivaled Roddick for attention from fans and media.
"He doesn't have an enemy on the tour," Roddick says. And "his game is getting better and better every day. He's a ridiculously good athlete. He's so fast."
Blake's ascent has been steady, and he has earned respect at nearly every stop. He grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., then Connecticut, and went to Harvard University with the modest hope of getting an education and cracking the top four on the varsity tennis team. After a solid freshman year, he exploded as a sophomore in 1999 and ended the year as the top-ranked collegian in the country.
To his parents' initial chagrin, he dropped out of Harvard to pursue a tennis career.
"It wasn't a popular move within the family for me to drop out of school," Blake recalls. "My father didn't like it."
"But I had gotten to the point where I needed better opponents to improve as a player. Besides, I can go back any time."
Blake's first couple of years on the tour were a struggle. While players like Roddick and Taylor Dent bypassed college and flew up in the rankings, Blake crawled out of the gate and was ranked below 200.
"It was a tough adjustment, he lost confidence," McEnroe says.
But Blake may have benefited from his anonymity, slipping below the radar screen while others carried the burden of media attention and high expectations. "It's helped to have Andy around," Blake says. "He carries the load, and he deals with all the pressure. He shot up really fast, and I could sit back and watch how it's done."
This year, Blake has had several impressive wins, including victories over Tommy Haas and Jan-Michael Gambill to make it to his first ATP Tour singles final in Memphis, Tenn., where he lost a three-set match to Roddick. He is 5-0 in Davis Cup play, most recently teaming up with Todd Martin in doubles to help the US beat Spain.
Blake, Roddick, Gambill, and Dent, among others, are coming up at just the right time for US tennis. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, two of the greatest players the game has ever seen, are nearing the ends of their careers.
Until recently there were no replacements in sight, and the USTA was coming under fire for not producing enough male talent.
The USTA redoubled its efforts by putting more focus on youth tennis, and it seems to be paying off.
"About 10 years ago we dropped [the] 12 [years old] and under competition, and it really hurt us," says USTA president Merv Heller. "We reinstated it four years ago, and I think it's helped."
"It's great to see James out there doing well," Heller adds. "He had a slow start, coming out of college. It takes a while to adjust to the professional game. I'm confident this will be a breakout year for him."