The day James Blake rallied to capture his first ATP singles title
Blake became the first black man since Yannick Noah and first African-American man since Arthur Ashe to win the Legg Mason Tennis Classic
James Blake grew up idolizing Hall of Fame tennis player Arthur Ashe. He studied how Ashe conducted himself, the way he mentally approached his matches and his attention to detail.
On Aug. 18, 2002, Blake’s first Association of Tennis Professionals singles victory came at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, now the Citi Open, which Ashe helped bring to Washington, D.C., in 1969 and won four years later.
Blake, seeded sixth, executed a comeback victory against No. 14 seed Paradorn Srichaphan, 1-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, to become the first black man to win the championship since Yannick Noah of France in 1985, and the first African-American man to win since Ashe in 1973.
Blake, who began playing tennis after hearing Ashe speak at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, made it to two tour-level finals before finally breaking through in the nation’s capital.
“It’s incredible,” Blake told The Washington Post‘s Rachel Nichols. “Any time I’m put in a sentence with Arthur Ashe, it’s very significant for me. In my childhood, I was proud to say he was my role model, and now … it’s mind-boggling, I can’t really comprehend what’s gone on this week.”
Blake was so overjoyed by his win that he hugged his opponent, galloped over to his parents, Thomas and Betty, and embraced his mother with such force that he nearly tipped her over.
“I forget how small she is sometimes,” Blake said, laughing. “I was just so happy, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
To reach the final, Blake, the world’s No. 32nd ranked player, upended No. 4 seed Alex Corretja in the quarterfinals and five-time tournament champion Andre Agassi in the semifinals. He did not drop a set in the four matches leading up to the final.
That streak was snapped in the first set of Blake’s match against Thai native Srichaphan, who won the opening frame 6-1 with a 131 mph serve that Blake was unable to handle.
“I was really comfortable in the first set,” Srichaphan told the Post. “I was hitting the ball well and moving him around. … [But] he came back strong in the second and third sets. ”
Said Blake: “Every shot was missing.”
The second set didn’t start off much better as the American sent a forehand volley into the net. But the 22-year-old’s first real sign of life came when he took a two-break-point advantage over Srichaphan, who had double-faulted, and was able to return a drop shot just over Srichaphan’s reach to take the game. That gave Blake a 4-2 lead in the second frame.
Srichaphan, who jumped out to a 3-1 lead, wouldn’t allow Blake to gather further momentum, though, as he forced him to send back-to-back backhand volleys into the net to earn back the break.
“It was still just one break, so I just tried to hang in there, and I had a good chance in the tiebreak,” Srichaphan told Nichols. “But even though I was up 3-1, I still had to work hard, because he’s still hanging there, he wants to come back, too.”
Four straight points later, Blake took 5-3 lead, and with the game at 6-5, Blake dealt a serve that Srichaphan sent long to tie the match at one set a piece.
At the beginning of the third set, both players showed off a strong service game, but after a five-deuce game that Blake ultimately won with a forehand to the corner, it was clear to those in attendance that it was Blake’s match to lose. After taking that 3-2 advantage, the American served out the rest of the way and the celebration began when Srichaphan returned one of Blake shots long.
Not only did Blake win his first ATP trophy, he also had the sweet satisfaction of knowing promises would be kept with the victory: his coach, Brian Baker, would either have to shave his head or go skydiving; his agent, Carlos Fleming, could look forward to skydiving; and his dad would shave the beard he’d been working on for more than 30 years.
“I’m not touching the ground – I couldn’t be any prouder,” Thomas Blake said.