More grounded, Blake flying high

Humble and mature, he'll take on Roddick tonight

Tennis

December 04, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

One of the most popular players on the ATP tennis tour will be at the 1st Mariner Arena tonight. But, James Blake said, he hasn't always been the gracious, mature player he is now.

"I started out as the bratty kid who really did think it was the end of the world when he lost a tennis match," Blake said earlier this week from his home in Tampa, Fla. "When I was real young, everything was about me, about me being the best, and I wasn't afraid to let people know."

How he acted began to change in fifth grade, when he and a number of his friends decided to play a game of charades in which they imitated one of their buddies.

"I'll never forget that," he said. "A girl was being me, and basically all she did was start bragging about how good she was. Basically, I realized at that point that the world didn't think much of me, and I started to change pretty quickly."

Blake has gone from being a self-centered child to a sore loser as a teen to a well-respected player at 23. He has gone from thinking only of himself to being a player who wants to give back to the programs that helped make his tennis life possible.

He supports the Harlem Junior Tennis program, in which he learned to play, and the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Mass., whose staff helped him recover from severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), an ailment diagnosed when he was 13. He also visits the Shriners Hospital in Tampa.

Deciding to come here tonight for Baltimore native and tennis Hall of Famer Pam Shriver's Mercantile Tennis Challenge was an easy call.

Tonight, Blake will join with Andy Roddick as the feature match in the 18th edition of the event that benefits children's charities.

"I had a great time at Pam's tournament two years ago," Roddick said. "And now, with James playing - he's a great guy. We should have a lot of fun, and it should be good for the charities Pam supports."

Ranked 37th, Blake has faced Roddick, who earned the world No. 1 ranking last month, seven times, dating to their junior days. Roddick has won all seven meetings.

"The offseason is the time to work hard and get better for the coming season," Blake said. "To practice and play a match against Andy and have some fun and play in a good event, it can't get much better."

So far, his game and Roddick's haven't matched up the way Blake would like. Roddick's serve is huge, and he's also strong on the short ball, often whipping his forehand for winners.

"And he isn't like most other big servers, who try to end points quickly," Blake said. "Andy is comfortable in a rally. I have to play defense on his big serve, and I'm adequate at that with my speed. But I also have to try to get to the net when he is on the defensive."

They've had close matches, including the first time Blake played on the pro tour. That match went to the third set before Roddick came from behind to win, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

"I got the lead, but he'd been in that situation more than I had," Blake said. "I got nervous, and he went on to win."

The nerves have lessened and so has Blake's temper. He was a racket thrower and had no problem exhibiting his anger. But his parents and Brian Barker, who has been his coach since Blake was 12, worked hard to improve his attitude.

"I think part of the reason people like me is that I try to have fun when I play," Blake said. "I want the fans to have fun. It's part of the reason we're there, as entertainers. ... I'm doing the best I can out there. I'm playing my hardest, but I'm grounded enough that I'm not going to go jump off a bridge if I lose. There are other things in life."

He learned those lessons in a number of ways from his parents, who lectured, and from his coach, who asked questions that made him think.

"When I went to junior tournaments, Brian didn't always travel with me," Blake said. "I'd call him after my matches. He was such a good friend to me, I really valued his opinion. And the first thing he'd ask me was, `How did you act?' Not, `How did you do?' I learned from that. Even when I was angry and I'd act up and throw my racket when he was there, I'd say I was sorry. Brian was always there saying, `You did it. Now, let's move on from there.'

"I've learned there is nothing embarrassing about losing to a great player," Blake said. "I'm still incredibly competitive, and it hurts me when I lose. My coach still knows after a loss there are still times when he shouldn't talk to me. But I get over it a lot quicker now. I try to let the loss push me to doing better the next time, to working harder on the practice court. I've come a long way."

Tonight's event

What: Mercantile Tennis Challenge

Site: 1st Mariner Arena

Time: 7

Featured participants:Andy Roddick, James Blake, Ashley Harkleroad, Maria Sharapova

Tickets: Call 410-481-SEAT or visit ticketmaster.com

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