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By Chris Oddo | Wednesday, March 11, 2015

 
James Blake, PowerShares

After retiring from the ATP Tour in 2013, James Blake has embraced family life while still staying involved with the game. We talk about his transition in our Tennis Now Q&A.

Photo Source/Chris Trotman for USTA:

James Blake spent 14 years of his adult life toiling on the ATP Tour, reaching a ranking of No. 4 and matching strokes and wits with the likes of Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but now that his playing days are in the rearview mirror the New York native finds himself busier than ever. With two daughters, a spot on the PowerShares Series (he’ll play nine dates this spring), and some hefty career choices on the horizon, Blake is tackling life after the ATP tour head on, with the same passion and dedication that made him an elite pro.

Visit the PowerShares Series site to find out where James will be competing

We caught up with James this week to talk about his new life on the PowerShares Series, the state of American tennis and how he feels about having his name mentioned as a possible candidate for the USTA’s Head of Player Development role.

TN: You’re not busy with tennis but from what I’ve heard you are more busy than ever, what has your experience away from the game been like, what have you been up to and what do you enjoy the most about your new life?

Things have been going great. It’s very true. I’m definitely busier than ever. Keeping busy with some on court stuff still, and off the court family life has kept me very busy (James has two young daughters). It’s been a pleasure to be off the court and not have a set schedule and regiment. Every day is a new day with the kids, so it’s fun.

TN: You are about to begin your second year on the PowerShares Series. Who impressed you the most on the court in your first, and who impressed you the most as an entertainer?

I’d say Andy [Roddick} still has to be the favorite in terms of the actual tennis. He’s still a young guy out there and can still serve about 140. I’d say [John] McEnroe is incredibly impressive for his age (McEnroe turned 56 on February 16th). To be still playing and still competitive at 55 years old is just incredible.

As far as the entertainment we always have McEnroe putting on a great show for the crowd. I was impressed, I just did an exhibition with Michael Chang recently. He was a guy who kept more to himself on the main tour, but he has definitely come out of his shell a bit and is having some fun on the court in the seniors.

TN: Are you impressed by the love that fans still share for these players?

It works really well with a one-night event. It’s perfect. Fans are going to see three sets of high-quality tennis. It’s perfect for the players as well. We can still put on a great show. We might not be able to play our best tennis in a best of five format, but for one or two sets a night, we can still put on a pretty good show. The fans have a great time seeing some of their old favorites and some great tennis.

TN: The State of American men’s tennis is a concern for everybody in the states right now, especially given what happened over the weekend in Glasgow. It’s never a good thing to lose in Davis Cup, but maybe relegation would be a good thing that would cause the leadership to tear things down and give them a shot to play some of our younger talent.

I think I agree more with your first statement. It’s never a good thing to lose. I think you want to win, you want to put U.S. tennis on the map and give us a chance because I think the situation as it is right now… a guy like John Isner he could go out and beat anyone in the world on any given day, so I would never want to take him off the team. I wouldn’t want to take him out of the World Group, because you put him in the World Group, along with the Bryans, who are favored against any other doubles team on the planet, and you have a chance to beat any team.

I’m looking forward to that draw ceremony to see who we play in September, and hopefully we’ll get back and stay in the World Group.

From the Vault: Five Fantastic James Blake Moments

TN: Kids like Jared Donaldson, Noah Rubin, Michael Mhoh, Francis Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov have American fans excited about the future. What is your take on this younger crop of kids and what do you think they need to do to in order to get to elite status?

It’s going to be a little while before we talk about elite status with them but I think it’s the best situation possible when you have, as you mentioned when you reeled off four or five names, high-quality players hopefully able to push each other. Because then you don’t have one superstar that you are hanging all the hopes of American tennis on. I think it’s a really good scenario, and I think if these guys go out and push each other—I’m not going to be the one to go out on a limb and say this one or that one is the next superstar—hopefully in the next few years it will start to flesh itself out, and we’ll see who’s got the mental capacity, who’s physically able to handle the rigors of the tour, and who is going to be pushing themselves to the top of the game.

I hope that a few of these guys, not just one of them, emerge as top-caliber pros and make all these questions of what’s wrong with American tennis go away.

TN: I’ve heard you say that American tennis should not focus its energies on creating a new crop of clay-courters just because European players who’ve been trained on clay are having success on the tour now. You’ve said—and correct me if I’m wrong—that US tennis should stick with what works and embrace the faster surfaces. If more training on clay is not a solution, do you have any ideas of how to bring it forward?

If they feel like they are clay-court players I think we should give them the opportunity to develop on clay and have those resources available, but I don’t think it’s something that we should be actively pushing because history proves that we’re better on faster surfaces. We’ve had a lot more U.S. Open champions than French Open champions. We’ve got three of the four Slams on those surfaces. I think we stick with what works best for us, and that’s generally been our skillset, because we’ve been training that way from very young.

I think if we start forcing what’s not natural on them, it’s not necessarily going to make them the best clay-courters in the world. If you know you’re a great clay-courter—guys like Jim Courier, Michael Chang—they had that ability from early on, they could see that. If players want to practice more on clay and want to compete with all the Spaniards, the Argentinians and all the guys that have been playing on clay their whole lives, then we just need to have the resources to do that. But I don’t think we should push it on the guys that want to play like Pete Sampras or Roger Federer.

TN: Your name has been thrown out there as a possible head of player development with the USTA. Is there something intriguing about your name and the words player development in the same sentence to you?

Yes, it’s very intriguing, because for me it’s one job that would get me excited to get out of bed every morning, something where I hopefully can make a difference and make a positive change in what’s been going on with the USTA and Player Development. Honestly I think they’re already on the right track. I’d be trying to help and push that forward and make a lot of things go the right way and then let the players do the rest of the work. Let the players do the real hard work and just give them the opportunities.

I think that’s the biggest thing Player Development can do. Open up doors, give them the opportunity and find out what they can do with those opportunities.

TN: How great is it to see Mardy Fish conquering his demons and making a comeback this week at Indian Wells?

Mardy is one of my best friends, so it’s great to see him back playing. I think he’s got his head on straight, and he’s feeling good. He’s sort of tempered the expectations. He knows that it’s been a while and it’s not easy to come back after that long off the court. I think he knows it’s going to be a process, but it’s going to be really good for him just to be back out on the court and to feel those nerves, feel the pressure and hopefully get some great fan reaction. I’m happy to see him back, happy that he’s healthy and able to be on the court doing what he loves.

TN: I’d love to get your thoughts on Indian Wells and Serena’s return. Personally I’ve wanted to see this for so long, just to see both sides come together and bridge the gap to show that we’re all on the same side, that we’re all together as one in tennis and in life. Are you excited, and is it meaningful to you?

Yeah, I’m happy she’s back mainly for the sport of tennis, and for her, I hope it means that she’s in a good place with the Indian Wells fans, and they’ll also come out to appreciate her, because she is, in my opinion, the greatest champion we’ve had on the women’s side. I think that by end of her career she may pass the record for most Slams won, and I think that it’s great to have a presence like that in California.

TN: On the Tennis Podcast you picked Grigor Dimitrov to be next maiden Slam winner, and you said it can be this year. What makes you believe in Grigor as that type of a talent and do you still see him breaking through despite his early season struggles?

I just see his talent. He has such an amazing wealth of ability. He doesn’t just have one thing that makes him good and I think that’s also part of the reason why he’s had some struggles at times because he doesn’t always know the best way to be effective. He has so much ability he doesn’t just fit one gameplan. If you’re a player like Milos Raonic you have a pretty straightforward gameplan, and Grigor with so many different weapons sometimes he can confuse himself. Even a guy like Roger, early on in his career had so many ways to win it took him a little while to really have his “A” game and know what made a difference and made him the best player in the world.

With Grigor I think he still has that opportunity, so I still think he is the one young guy who has the best chance to break through and win a Slam.

TN: Is some of this caused by what you saw him do at Wimbledon last year? He can be a really great big-match player.

Yes, he can be. He can beat anyone in the world. It’s just a matter of him putting it together and figuring out what works best for him on a day-to-day basis. Not just that one time in a big match, he needs to be doing it every single practice so it becomes second nature.

TN: Where do you see Jack Sock fitting in with this group. He’s got some tremendous talent. Are you still in touch with him and what are your thoughts on his future?

Yes, he’s playing Indian Wells. I’ve been in touch with him, he feels stronger than ever, which is a good thing. Hopefully he can turn a negative into a positive, hopefully being bitten by the injury bug made him realize how important staying healthy is and he will sort of rededicate himself to being in the best shape he can be in.

He does have a lot of weapons, he just has to figure out how to harness them at the right times. He has unbelievable hands at the net, he moves a lot better than people give him credit for, I think he just has to find ways to put it together, and I think consistency is a big thing. Just being able to do it every day in practice, so that when you go out there you know even if you’re not at your best that day, your level is still high enough to win matches. That’s the thing that a lot of young guys don’t have.

James won PowerShares Series events in Salt Lake City and Sacramento last year (beating McEnroe in the final) and lost in the Houston and Portland finals to Andre Agassi.

In 2015 he will play in the opening event on 3/24 in Salt Lake City as defending champion, and also compete in LA (3/25), Lincoln, Ne. (4/1), Chicago (4/2), Austin (4/16), Boston (4/22), Richmond (4/23), Minneapolis (4/29) and Cincinnati (4/30).

 

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