On the morning of Aug. 22, three days before the start of the U.S. Open, James Blake posed as a tennis star.
On a makeshift blue tennis court set up in the backyard of the Winter Garden in Lower Manhattan, Blake, the biracial darling of American men’s tennis, had just hosted a hit-around for Heineken. As a dozen people milled around waiting for the presentation of an oversize check for charity, Blake stood, unnoticed, near one of the courts, a racket still in hand, dressed casually in a pull-over gray long-sleeve shirt and 33-waist True Religion jeans.
It was the middle of a busy weekend. Later that night, Blake would co-host the USTA’s official U.S. Open party on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel on West 63rd Street; a day earlier, Men’s Vogue threw him an invite-only party at the Greenwich Hotel. In the Open’s pre-tournament publicity tour that hit the city last week, James Blake was it.
“He’s attended these types of events over the years, but it’s the first time we’ve really had people very interested in him taking a leadership role,” said Carlos Fleming, Blake’s agent.
“It means you’re doing something special,” Blake said when asked about the increased attention. “People want to see you, people want you there, people want you to be promoting men’s tennis—American men’s tennis.”
But with all due respect to Blake, who is a likable man and a decent player, what does that say about the state of American men’s tennis?
The crowd gathered on the morning of Aug. 22 was a mix of tourists and Wall Street traders who were marveling over the fact that there was a tennis court directly behind the World Financial Center; they hardly seemed to notice that Blake was there.
Sean Boateng, a 28-year-old trader at Merrill Lynch, dressed in slacks and a striped dress shirt, stood near the court and said Blake was “great, awesome” before repeatedly referring to him as “David Blake.” A plumber working on the nearby construction site at ground zero walked by the court and barked, “Who the hell is that guy?”
At a time when men’s tennis has once again reentered the public imagination, it’s due to the efforts of people named Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Blake, for all his efforts, has never won a Grand Slam, and is still missing that special something to carry him from your standout American men’s tennis player to superstardom. He doesn’t have the crossover star power of an Agassi or a McEnroe, no matter how many American Express ads he poses for. With the decreasing profile of American men’s tennis, even as the game thrives globally, the effort to market its stars before the tournament is a harder and harder sell.
Of course, Blake does have name recognition here, particularly in Queens. His profile at the Open has been huge for the past three years, and his rowdy, fratty cheering squad—the “J-Block”—has gotten more than its share of airtime.
But even so, away from Flushing, Blake’s profile is unextraordinary.