As James Blake approaches the practice court, it's surprising that more people don't realize that one of the best tennis players in the world is walking among them.
I was at the Tennis Championships in Indianapolis on July 14, the first stop of the U.S. Open Series, and an unbelievable mecca for Midwestern tennis buffs unable to fly east for the one grand slam on American soil.
But Blake has such an unassuming air about him that he almost fits right in, even though he carries an unbelievably large tennis bag with him -- much larger than those the fans are carrying desperate for players, like Blake, to sign. It isn't until he gets between the lines and lets his signature forehands rip that the crowd begins to gather.
Blake's celebrity has always been a mystery to him and his family.
"The first times I'd get fan mail, or all the autograph seekers or all the kids that are wanting me to sign their shirt, their hand, their arm ... anything and [my parents] just laughed," Blake recalls. "You know, I'm their youngest kid. ... They see me as their baby no matter what."
Blake's celebrity status is sure to hit an all-time high after having the greatest win of his professional career this week. On Thursday, he defeated one of the best tennis players of all time, Roger Federer, in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games. Federer has always been a thorn in Blake' side, winning all of their previous eight matches, and Thursday was a day of redemption.
Unfortunately his spectacular win was followed by two tough losses, costing James his shot at the bronze medal.
Playing in his first Olympics has been the realization of a life-long dream for the pro. But it is bittersweet. Four years ago he sat out the games, recovering from injuries, illness and the death of his father.
He remembers his dad, Thomas Blake Sr., as a friend, a role model, a disciplinarian and a superhero.
"He just seemed to be youthful and full of life. He was able to keep up with my brother and me through our teenage years on the tennis court, on the golf course, no matter what. He had so much energy; it seemed like it was endless," Blake says. "This was the first time, when he got sick, that I could imagine anything kind of striking him down."
James found out his father had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in the early summer of 2003. His father's absence at Wimbledon was initially blamed on an excess of work. But soon after James was eliminated in the second round of the tournament, his mother revealed the devastating truth.
"It really just took me back so quickly. It made everything else seem so pale in comparison," Blake says. "I really don't even remember one thing that happened in Wimbledon that year. I didn't watch or care after that. Everything else just seemed very unimportant."
Even in sickness, Blake's father didn't stop being a role model, a superhero.
"He didn't complain once. He didn't ask for help. He didn't say, 'Why me?' He didn't say, 'This is such bad luck, everyone needs to pity me,'" Blake recalls. "He just said, 'You guys go out and do your thing. I'll be here. I'm going to beat this, I'm going to be fine. You guys go out and do everything you need to do.' It was amazing."
Thomas Blake Sr. lost his battle with stomach cancer just over a year later, in July of 2004. But for Blake, the tennis pro, the battle against cancer was truly just beginning.
On July 10, at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the very same hospital where his father spent the last days of his life, Blake announced the launch of the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund.
Through Anthem Live!, an annual benefit event that showcases exhibition play from some of the best American tennis players, and the sale of "J-Block" merchandise, James hopes to raise $1 million.
"For it to be named after my father, and to know that my father made a million-dollar difference in helping, hopefully another family will be able to detect cancer early, and let another family be together for many years to come instead of being torn apart. I think he'd be so proud," Blake says.
Four years after his father's passing, not a day goes by when James does not think of his "Superman." With every point, every game, every set, the words his dad taught him ring in his ears. When Blake is performing poorly and wants nothing more than to throw a racquet or a temper tantrum, he calms himself by remembering his father taught him to be a bigger man than that. And yet, it is the lessons that his dad taught him off the court that have turned James into the man he is today. Ask anyone, from young fans to tournament directors, they all will confirm that James Blake is a true gentleman.
"[My dad] taught me about respect," Blake says. "When I'm making decisions that are going to affect the rest of my life or affect other people, I just hope I'm doing them the right way."
This particular afternoon in Indianapolis, James is on the practice courts with fellow American Sam Querrey. (They teamed up to play doubles tennis during the Olympic Games in Beijing but lost.) They are taking this opportunity in Indiana to perfect the art of sharing one side of the net.
The fans wait patiently, all hoping for a smile, a photo, an autograph, and Blake is more than happy to oblige. When practice is over, James approaches the growing crowd without hesitation, taking the time to sign every hat, every shirt, every tennis ball. There are enough tournament volunteers, struggling to hold back the fans, that Blake could easily breeze right by if he wanted.
But his father taught him better than that. It is in this moment, in the laughter he shares with everyone around him, that I notice how much James resembles his father. All these fans are clamoring to get a glimpse at the current top-ranking American tennis player, but all I see is a man who is truly his father's son.
To purchase J-Block merchandise, tickets to Anthem Live! or to make a donation to the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund, go to jamesblaketennis.com