You watched him on the match court, an Ivy Leaguer-turned-Top-5-pro who won 10 career titles and helped the U.S. reclaim the Davis Cup for the first time in a dozen years in 2007. The Yonkers, N.Y., native went from dreadlocks to bald pate, bringing his vociferous fans — the J-Block — along for the ride. His epic five-set quarterfinal against Andre Agassi at the 2005 U.S. Open remains an all-time classic, even though he came out on the losing end, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(6). As Agassi famously said after the marathon match, which lingered until 1:15 a.m., “I wasn’t the winner; tennis was.”
He went on to the senior tour, eventually (and effortlessly) sliding into the broadcast booth with the Tennis Channel. He’s president of the USTA Foundation. Following an assault by a New York City policeman in 2015, he’s become a de facto spokesman for victims of unwarranted violence. And in January, Blake was tabbed as the new tournament director of the Miami Open, overseeing the longtime event’s move from Key Biscayne to a new home in 2019. BNPParibasOpen.com caught up with the busy Blake at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where he reached the final in 2006 (l. to Roger Federer 7-5, 6-3, 6-0).
You really have to be impressed with American Ernesto Escobedo’s effort here in the desert, downing a hot Frances Tiafoe to reach the second round. What are your thoughts on his game?
He’s got a ton of firepower. One thing that’s great about Ernesto is that he recognizes his game plan. He sticks with it. He doesn’t try to play too much defense, he doesn’t get too complacent. He knows that he’s got to be aggressive for him to be successful. That can be tough for a young player to do because you know you’re going to be criticized if you’re having a rough day. They’ll say, “You need to play safer.” It’s going to be really difficult for him once he starts to have more success and he’s expected to win. He has to still play that way. If he falters and starts to play a little too safe, that’s not his game.
That particular group of young American men is really something, between Escobedo, Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Stefan Kozlov, to name a few.
It’s a great group, and the guys seemingly all get along. They’re all pushing each other not only with their results, but in practice. That makes such a big difference. Donaldson probably took the lead last year by getting to the #NextGen Finals. He did it through consistency. Then Tiafoe already winning a title this year. You’ve got Taylor getting back into it, winning some Challenger titles, having some success on the main tour. Opelka almost beat him the other day. When you see these guys in practice every day and then you see them having success, it makes you all believe you can have that same thing. They’re all going to feed off each other.
Is Paul Annacone’s decision to coach Taylor in essence a confidence vote in his game? Not bad to get the nod from a guy who’s worked with the likes of Federer and Sampras.
I think it was a matter of Taylor picking up the phone and Paul being so willing to help the young guys. He’s willing to help players who are putting in the hard work. It was a really smart decision by Taylor. For Annacone to work with him, it does show that he knows he has a lot of potential, because Paul’s pretty selective about who he works with, and who he feels he can help. It’s going to be a good relationship because Taylor, even at 20 years old, is one of the more savvy professionals. Having both his mom and dad in tennis has also helped him. It’s a good partnership.
How are we supposed to address you these days? You were a Top-5 player, you’re working with the Tennis Channel, and now you’re taking on a new role as the tournament director of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Miami.
They’re all fun in different ways. I’m loving the tournament director role because I’m learning about the tournament side, having always been on the players’ side. I hope that’s part of the reason they’re bringing me in, to show what is important to the players. Now I see what’s important to the tournaments, how some of the behind-the-scenes situations go, the negotiations. It’s been pretty much a whirlwind the last month-and-a-half. I’m enjoying it. I know the playing obviously ends at some point. This is another way to be involved in tennis, a sport that’s been so good to me. I’m thrilled to help out the Miami tournament, especially as we build a whole new stadium. That’s going to be a big step for me to make sure that the new stadium really caters to the players.
Roger Federer recently spoke of the athleticism in tennis, how a new breed of players is opening up the court even more, hitting amazing angles, winners from everywhere on the court. The technology certainly helps, too, but we’re also seeing some tough injuries.
Every sport gets bigger, faster, stronger. The technology gets better. You see it so much in golf. You see it in football, the 40 times getting faster, the bench press is getting bigger. In tennis, it’s the same thing — guys are getting bigger, stronger, faster, and you’ve got technology advancing. It’s also one of the most amazing things about Roger, that he’s been able to bridge so much of that and still stay healthy, stay relevant, stay on top. It’s really a credit to him. He’s been doing this for 20 years. It’s fun to watch. I’ll never be one of those commentators who says, ‘Oh, I would have beaten this guy.’ No, the guys on tour now are way better than me. They keep getting better and better. I love seeing the advancement. At some point, it may be time to start reeling it in. With tennis, is it time to start figuring a way to slow things down a little bit, change the court, get more variety in the court speeds? It’s more possible to dominate on every surface than it used to be. Those are discussions that will be had by players, by tournaments in the future.