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James Blake’s success, influence in tennis continue after his standout career

Blake has become the only Black tournament director at the ATP or WTA level

When you are one of the best, most exciting tennis players in the world for a generation, finding the energy to enjoy a post-playing career can be a challenge.

But for James Blake, the skills he showcased on the tennis court for more than a decade have been consolidated into a period as enthralling as the superbly timed inside-out forehands and marvelous mobility he showed as a professional.

The former world No. 4 has transformed into a fresh, knowledgeable and eager commentator for ESPN’s Grand Slam coverage of the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Blake has also been captivated by the rapid growth of pickleball to become one of the sport’s headline proprietors, co-owning The Lions in Milwaukee with former Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry.

And, with his own unique experiences in combating racism, Blake is not bashful on his Twitter whenever he sees something in American society that troubles him, whether pointing out the systematic racism double standards that Black and Latino Americans face or advocating for gun control.

It’s as active of a career as a retired, top tennis player could have, and nothing represents that more than Blake being a tournament director of one of the most prestigious events in the sport. Entering his fifth year as tournament director of the Miami Open, Blake expressed joy over how something like this has transpired for him.

“I wasn’t thinking as much far down the road,” he said to Andscape. “Financially I was [planning for the future] because I was putting money away. I wasn’t thinking about that athlete trap of ‘make money, spend money, make money, spend money.’ I was putting it away, but I wasn’t thinking about the career necessarily after tennis until I got to the end of my playing career. I thought, ‘what can I do now?’ I thought about a lot of different options — going into finance. I thought about getting totally out of tennis. After about six months of thinking those ways, it made me realize how much of a passion, once you leave something, how much of a passion I still had for tennis, how much I loved it. I got back into commentary and then realized it was an opportunity there.”

James Blake speaks at the Glam Slam Presented by NYFW: The Shows and Chase Sapphire, at Spring Studios on Sept. 8, 2022, in New York City.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for IMG Fashion

With Tommy Haas, Todd Martin, Amelie Mauresmo and Feliciano Lopez, who is still active, the list of tennis players becoming tournament directors over the last decade has become noticeable, with Blake at the center.

“It can really help the experience that the players have,” he said. “And once we kind of learn on the job as former players about what else can be done to help sponsors, to help the fans, the media — there is so much that goes into a tournament besides the players — then we can be effective. I like to think that first year on the job, I was really learning hopefully a lot about how the way the events are being run. I’ve been really lucky to have people who have been amazing to work with and just learning as I go.”

The 43-year-old father of two was “so focused” on his playing career that he couldn’t foresee being the one to organize matches for players, and it’s justified considering how strong his career was. His tennis heroes Arthur Ashe (No. 2) and Yannick Noah (No. 3) are the only Black players with a higher ranking in ATP history than Blake. Making his career even more impressive was that Blake not only went the college route for his development, but that he went to an Ivy League school, Harvard, to become a dynamic force in men’s tennis.

Blake recently observed the 20th anniversary of winning his first ATP title in Washington. The Yonkers, New York, native won the singles trophy in 2002 after defeating Andre Agassi in the semifinals and Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand in the final.

The fondness Blake has for that special week will forever stick with him.

“It was actually the one tournament my coach [Brian Barker] had to miss because his sister was getting married,” he said. “So, I had a buddy of mine that I grew up, one of my best friends who I also played tennis with, was my coach for that week. And we were just having fun, keeping everything as loose as possible, and I played Andre in the semis; that’s a tough match. He had beaten me before, obviously one of the legends of the game. And I was just letting it fly, see what happens and let the chips fall where they may.

“And in the finals, I definitely felt the pressure, felt a lot of nerves. Srichaphan wasn’t quite the same level of Andre Agassi, but I know he was a very dangerous player and he got off to a good start and it was a tough day. But getting through it, I was really proud, really happy and just a huge relief to feel like I belong on tour, to have a title. Because I felt like I had been knocking on the door a couple of times. And I really wanted to get that one.”

It’s already tough to be a director of a professional tournament, let alone one of the top six in tennis tournaments. At the Miami Open, Blake has to organize schedules, accommodate more than 300 players and keep track of all the action on more than 30 courts. But what Blake has accomplished in his four years in the role has been one of the sport’s most underrated stories considering what he was taking on.

Once thought irrefutably as the unofficial “Fifth Slam,” the biggest tournament outside of the majors, the Miami Open’s lofty status and even existence was put into question. Some even thought that the event would leave Miami, or the U.S.

The tournament’s longtime location, the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida, was deteriorating. That was in stark contrast to the tournament that precedes it on the schedule, the event in Indian Wells, California, that continues to benefit from tech billionaire Larry Ellison’s 2009 takeover. To protect its future and standing in the sport, the Miami Open’s owner IMG partnered with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and made the risky decision starting in 2019 to move the tournament to Ross’ Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Those major changes to the Miami Open were accompanied by the coronavirus pandemic. Lesser tournament directors would have buckled under the pressure of all those difficult elements, but not the 10-time ATP Tour winner.

“It was a bit challenging at first because players don’t like change,” Blake said. “So, when I first announced it, and I still remember announcing it, and getting booed because the players and a lot of the fans didn’t want to leave. They know how comfortable they had been at Crandon Park. And then after that first year, I was completely relieved when we were there and towards the end, the players were saying, ‘I didn’t think this was going to work and we’re really happy, this has been so much better, we’re really appreciating everything you’ve done and how this tournament is working in a new facility.’ ”

Tennis player Frances Tiafoe (left) is interviewed by James Blake (right) after his victory against Rafael Nadal during the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 5, 2022, in Queens, New York.

Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

From a trailblazing career to more trailblazing after it, Blake doesn’t overlook that he is currently the only Black tournament director for an ATP, WTA or combined ATP-WTA event. He continues to praise to those who created the path to inspire the next generation of Black figures in the sport.

“I’m feel very lucky that I came after some really amazing trailblazers in Arthur Ashe, Mal Washington, Althea Gibson and the Williams sisters,” he said. “To be a trailblazer is something that sometimes is given to you because it’s just you’re the first or you’re the second or you’re just in that position that others aren’t. I do hope there are more doors open. When I hear Frances Tiafoe talk about how he looked up to me and that was part of him getting into tennis, it really does warm my heart and makes me feel like I did something that actually can have meaning.

“I did my best on the court and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to be so focused when I was a player. And now, I want to be successful after. I’m doing what I can and I try to learn every day. And I’m trying to do the best so maybe 20 years from now it’s not an anomaly to have a Black tournament director, and we can have a few more and that will steamroll or snowball into a bigger influence of African Americans on the men’s side as well as it is on the women’s side.”

Andrew Jones is a sports, political and culture writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, MSNBC, Ebony Magazine, Salon, SB Nation and The Intercept. He is also proud of his Brooklynite, "Do or Die" Bed-Stuy ways.