Top-ranked Harvard M. Tennis player James Blake turns pro
July 15, 1999, 5:00 am·
The Harvard Crimson CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (U-WIRE) -- James Blake, the nation's No. 1 ranked college player in the 1998-99 season, gave up playing for the Crimson last month to play for the green. Blake competed last week as a pro at the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, a grass-court tournament in Newport, R.I., beating a former Wimbledon finalist in his debut. Overcoming early jitters against MaliVai Washington, the 1996 Wimbledon runner-up, Blake defeated his boyhood idol, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 last Monday in the first round. "After the first set, I told myself to stop worrying and have fun," Blake told the Associated Press earlier this week. Blake's second round opponent last Wednesday was a lanky Dane named Kenneth Carlsen. Blake could not recapture the magic he had against Washington, falling to the No. 109 player in the world, 6-3, 6-4. Washington reached No. 11 in the international rankings at the height of his career in October 1992. At age 30, he is currently No. 401 and said, after succumbing to Blake, that he will soon be reevaluating his future in tennis. Blake, a Fairfield, Conn., native and former Mather House resident, is currently No. 448 in the world, although that will likely change once he gets more tournament experience under his belt. The ranking system is based on players' performance over the last year. No. 440 and 1998 Harvard graduate Tom Blake, James' brother, also played in the Rhode Island tournament, winning a qualifying match against former top player David Wheaton, the tournament's 1994 champion. So Long, Harvard Blake's decision to turn pro, in addition to taking away his collegiate athletic eligibility, likely will mean some time off from the textbooks as well. "The policy [at Harvard] is that you can come back at any time, so I can do it," Blake, who is an economics concentrator, told The Crimson earlier in the year. "It would definitely be nice to finish and it would be different because I wouldn't have the tennis and would be able to concentrate even more on my studies." "He probably doesn't know if he'll be coming back himself," said Paul McNeeley, assistant director of athletics for sports media relations. "He's foregone his eligibility, so he couldn't come back and play tennis, but he's always got the opportunity to come back and get his degree." By choosing to attend college first, Blake will be at a slight disadvantage against players his own age who turned pro straight out of high school. "I just want to play in as many tournaments as I can because I don't really have the match experience that most of the players my age have," Blake said. "But I don't want to go in with any expectations of what ranking I want to reach or anything. I'm just going to have fun and learn a lot." In the months before his decision, Blake said that it would be difficult to say goodbye to many of the people he knew at Harvard. "It will definitely be hard to leave all my teammates and friends who have always been there for me," he said. A Big Fish in a Small Pond Blake's decision to turn pro was undoubtedly influenced by his performance on the court this year. Although he fell in the title game of the NCAA Championships to rival Jeff Morrison of Florida, he remained the No. 1 collegiate player in the country. Blake racked up enough points by winning two other Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Grand Slam events and by dominating the competition to the tune of a 41-4 record. "James was phenomenal all season long," Harvard senior and tennis co-captain Mike Passarella said at the end of the season. "He proved himself to be far and away the best player in the country." His victories in the ITA All-American Championships last October and the Rolex National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships in February gave him the respect of the tennis world, not just on the collegiate level. On June 14, Blake was named the Tennis Magazine/ITA National Player of the Year. He also teamed with senior co-captain Kunj Majmudar for a phenomenal season of doubles, earning the third seed in the NCAA tournament as a pair. The duo, however, ultimately fell in the second round. Blake's NCAA tournament singles performance marked the first time a Crimson player had reached the finals since 1921.