The charm of tennis' new star

ROHIT BRIJNATH

If one's reputation is a possession, then of all my possessions my reputation means most to me. Nothing comes even close to me in importance... I am referring to a reputation that is deserved, not an image cultivated for the public in spite of the facts. - The first lines from Arthur Ashe's book, 'Days of Grace.'

THE intriguing aspect about tennis player James Blake is that these days people would rather not talk about his tennis. Oh, he's quicker across court than rain sliding down a pipe, hits a forehand like a circus master's bullwhip, and constructs volleys that are triumphs of engineering.

But still, his tennis comes secondary for many people. Even though with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and Todd Martin, the hinges of their games rattling loose, heading slowly for the scrap yard (not that you'd guess it from this year's Open), he carries, with Andy Roddick, America's tennis ambitions.

Of course, people acknowledge that James Blake has a sweet game. It's just they're bewildered by his manner. Or as John McEnroe put it, he's too "nice a guy." As if it were some limitation, some impediment to greatness; as if to say, can a saint be a killer?

James Blake's no saint, but in the tennis world he's easy to recognise. Not just because he's an African-American, or is a handsome dread-locked young man who's called "modelito" by the Spanish contingent because IMG's catwalk department signed him up as a male model. Nah, it's his charm that gives him away.

In a world where Jennifer Capriati finds it necessary to be rude to Billie Jean King, where Roddick nearly got into a physical confrontation with an opponent a month ago, Blake is setting a standard for behaviour that is almost unsettling.

Tennis is more comfortable with men like Greg Rusedski, who on losing to Sampras at the US Open, could find in him only these words to say: "Well, I lost the match. He didn't win the match. I mean, he's not playing that great. I'd be surprised if he wins his next match." So much for a generosity of spirit.

So what then can you say about Blake, who finds a seemingly racist remark hurled at him by Hewitt at last year's US Open, but doesn't throw a tantrum, but merely says, "I did what I was taught to do, which is to give him the benefit of the doubt." What do you say about Blake, who played Hewitt again this year, yet carried no ill-will on to court, and after losing actually apologised for the intemperate behaviour of his home crowd?

What you say is that Arthur Ashe would approve.

Everyone knows that last year, after another disputed line call, Hewitt pointed to a black linesman who made the call, and then at Blake, and said to the umpire: "Don't you see the similarity?" Hewitt said he was talking about the calls, some thought the subject was race. No incident in tennis has been as quoted in the last 12 months. Blake insisted he had "moved on," clearly no one else had.

When they met again this year at the Open, the shadow of last year hung darkly over the encounter. But both men brushed it aside in an epic five-set re-match; it was an unsullied moment of tennis splendour, where the tennis and behaviour were impeccably tasteful.

But then from the stands, a fan yelled, "Don't lose to him, James, he's racist." Hewitt did nothing, but Blake turned in disbelief, waving his arm in censure towards the offending fan. Later, after losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, Blake shook Hewitt's hand, and said: "I just wanted to congratulate him, and say he deserved it. He played better than me. I just apologised for any fans that were speaking negatively. I was somewhat embarrassed when a few fans did that."

If Blake's response last year had, as Agassi put it, "taught us something about class," he was about to further embarrass his peers who subsist on a diet of cliches such as "it's a dog-eat-dog world" and "professional sport is a selfish pursuit." At the press conference, when a reporter started by asking whether, in light of the previous year's incident, it was important to show he was a good sportsman, Blake interrupted her and said: "I think it (sportsmanship) is good at any time; it's good for the game of tennis."

Blake, who spent two years at Harvard, would prefer conversation to centre around his tennis, and having hurtled from No. 74 last year to No. 21 now, and having won his first title in Washington some weeks ago including a win over Agassi, the first word from his label, "potential threat" has disappeared. Last year, he admitted he played above himself when losing to Hewitt; this year, he said, he played at his level, and to take the world No. 1 the distance, when he is playing well, requires no further explanation.

It is somewhat fitting that as a young boy with the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, he was inspired by a tennis player who arrived one day to lecture his class. That man was Arthur Ashe, and as Blake has said, "Anytime I'm put into a sentence with Arthur Ashe it's very significant to me... There aren't many people like Arthur out there, so it's very tough, but I do my best, but I would never say I'm in the same league as him.'

Maybe no one will be, for Ashe arrived in a different era; as a boy he was told by a school bus driver to sit at the back because he was black, and was barred from tournaments because of his colour. As a man, he protested so forcefully against apartheid (he was arrested once) that in some measure it cost him his Davis Cup captaincy. He was a man of conscience, who managed with dignity his burden of race.

But Blake, in his own small way too, hears the beat of his conscience. It is apparent in his quiet decency; in his belief that the athlete must not exist in a self-centred universe, for as he says, "We are also playing for the fans;" in his embrace of Hewitt when he said: "The way we conducted ourselves.... I like the fact that any kids watching (their match this year) can say, "I want to be like either one of those two. I'm glad I was part of it."

One thing we know, he swallows disappointment better than Rusedski. We can, of course, rail about the lack of gentlemen champions, and we can rue the fact that the only protests these days are about inadequate prize money and tough match scheduling. But perhaps, for once, we should instead be grateful for what James Blake provided us, something we are unaccustomed to receiving from athletes.

A few days of grace.