Universally liked by fans and foes, American tennis star James Blake is arguably the nicest guy on the professional tennis circuit. "Arguably is the right word," Blake tells MF. "I'm sure there are some who would argue otherwise." Always a class act, when he's on the court the 27-year-old transforms into a competitive right-hander with a mean forehand.
After a disastrous 2004, plagued by injury and grief, he ranked as low as 210. But he rose to a best-ever No. 4 to close 2006, posting eight wins over top-10 opponents including fellow American Andy Roddick and king of the clay court Rafael Nadal—twice . The comeback kid has a shot to make another statement at the U.S. Open: that nice guys can finish first.
MF: This being the U.S. Open, do you try to raise your game for the home crowd?
James Blake: Oh yeah, I love it. To meet the enthusiasm of the American fans, I really want to do well. It's the biggest tournament for me all year. You'd think I'd get used to it by now, but every time I go into Arthur Ashe Stadium, it's truly awe-inspiring. I've been a fan of the U.S. Open my whole life, since I grew up so close to [Flushing, N.Y.]. Going to watch with my dad was a ton of fun, and as I got older, my friends and I would sneak in, then try to get down as close as we could to the court.
And now kids are sneaking in to watch you play.
[Laughs] Well, I hope they're paying, so [the U.S. Open] can afford to pay us the prize money.
Having gone toe-to-toe with top-ranked Roger Federer in the quarterfinals last year, would you say he's tennis's best ever?
He's on his way. You can't give it to him quite yet just because he hasn't had the longevity. He's an extremely well- rounded player who can win on all surfaces. Playing against him is, for me, not like playing against anyone else.
If Federer is the toughest player, who's the fittest?
How about Andy? I saw his cover for Men's Fitness, and we definitely had a few laughs about that. The fittest—possibly [Rafael] Nadal because he's been so great in all his long matches, especially on clay. Although his matches have gone a little bit quicker since he's been winning them all. But it really does seem like he can run all day and never get tired.
Tennis players in general are some of the leanest athletes. What do you do to stay so phenomenally fit?
On the court, I do a lot of drills with my trainer, where he tosses me anywhere from four to 13 tennis balls and I have to catch them on one bounce. Or we go old school and run suicides—sprinting and turning and doing quick, short adjustment steps to touch each line. Off the court, I do more plyometric-type exercises and lift weights four times a week. During the tournament, it's a little bit of treadmill and a little bit of bike, for maintenance.
The U.S. men were shut out on the first day of the French Open—what happened?
I can only take credit for my own loss. There were actually a lot of tough draws, to be honest, but it hurts your pride a little bit. We all know that clay isn't the best surface for the Americans. We haven't had a true clay courter, really, since [Jim] Courier and [Michael] Chang. But next year we just have to get better. We can't get much worse.
You can acquit yourselves quite nicely if the Americans take home the Davis Cup this year.
That'd be huge. It would probably be the biggest win in my career. I know Andy feels the same and [No. 1 doubles team] the Bryans do too. We have too much talent and too much enthusiasm to not win.