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Miami Open Tournament Director James Blake Q&A

Photo credit: Miami Open

By Richard Pagliaro

MIAMI—Standing in front of the life-sized Dan Marino Statue outside of Hard Rock Stadium, James Blake is both signal caller and goodwill ambassador for the Miami Open.

On the tournament’s opening Monday, Miami Open Tournament Director Blake was busy chatting with fans shortly after the gates open for the day’s play.

In his prime playing days, former world No. 4 Blake was one of tennis’ fastest players and most explosive shotmakers. Blake won 10 ATP titles, served on the ATP Player Council and was a key player on the 2007 United States squad that captured the Davis Cup championship. 

These days, the Yonkers, N.Y. native remains a man in motion meeting with sponsors, conducting the tournament draws, discussing the tournament site with players and taking time out daily to welcome fans.

Blake, named after his grandfather who was a New York City cop, enjoyed his playing days at the old Miami Open site on Crandon Park and has played a pivotal part in the tournament’s transition to the Hard Rock Stadium home of the Miami Dolphins.

The sun set on the Miami Open’s magical 32-year Key Biscayne run back in 2018. Organizers poured $60 million into transforming Hard Rock Stadium into a tennis facility complete with the unique stadium within a stadium planted on the Dolphins football field.

While there was healthy skepticism after the move, Roger Federer helped bring the buzz to the new site capturing the 2019 Miami Open that was the first edition staged at Hard Rock. 

Blake grew up playing at the Harlem Junior Tennis Center, went to high school in Fairfield, Connecticut where he was friends with musician John Mayer and earned all-American honors at Harvard before turning pro.

In 2004, Blake crashed into a net post in Rome and suffered a broken neck. He also lost his father and one of his biggest fans, Thomas Blake Sr. to cancer that year; the stress of both events resulted in a terrible case of shingles.

Following his father’s death, James started the James Blake Foundation, supporting the efforts of the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund, which launched in memory of James’s father and is dedicated to the early detection of cancers commonly discovered in later stages. To date, the James Blake Foundation surpassed the $3 million mark in total funds raised for the fight against the disease.

We caught up with Blake right outside Hard Rock Stadium shortly after Bianca Andreescu beat Emma Raducanu in a pulsating opener today.

In this interview, the Miami Open tournament director talks tournament evolution, the best server he ever faced, the champion he regards as one of the two most hard-core competitors he’s ever met and the night he saw Serena rock a dive bar in Tampa.

RP: Iga withdrew today after you announced Novak was out last week. Still, the fans are here and we’ve seen good matches already, including Bianca Andreescu’s win earlier. What are you most excited about this year’s Miami Open? What changes can fans who came last year look forward to this year?

James Blake: We can’t control who’s playing. We try to get the best players in the world and we get everyone who can come. As far as what we can control, we’ve added more activations on site so people have a lot of things to do in between the great matches they see. We’ve added a concert series with Kool & The Gang and Cimafunk on Friday and Saturday night so that’s exciting.

We’ve got Stella Artois. We have unbelievable sponsors, especially on the beverage side: Stella Artois, Maestro Dobel Tequila, Santa Margherita wines. We’ve got some really, really good sponsors.

The Miami Open continues to get bigger and better with no COVID restrictions we’re at full capacity and I love it.

RP: A lot of tennis purists loved Crandon Park on Key Biscayne because it was such a beautiful, scenic site, but also you cross the Causeway and it’s like you entered a tennis oasis, a tennis bubble where it was all tennis all the time. Here, you drive into the venue and can wonder: is it a football stadium, is it a tennis stadium, is it a race track, is it a gondola ride?

Obviously, you can’t recreate Crandon Park here or anywhere. However, you can also flip that around and argue the versatility makes it special: That you are trying to give fans more bang for the buck with all the entertainment value on site. My question is: You must have spent a lot of time thinking about how to shape the identity of the tournament in a new site. What is the identity you strive to establish?

James Blake: When I first came on board I definitely wanted to make it more of an event. We’re always going to have the world’s best tennis, which is obviously our main focus and is always going to be here for the die-hard fans who want to see the best tennis in the world.

But we’re also committed to creating an event around it as well. So yeah, here we have the ability to add all this unbelievable food, incredible beverages, all the activities to go along with it. And we just have the ability to expand. I love the fact that I can say “yes” to a lot of player requests.

You want extra goals in our soccer area? We can do that. You want expanded dining? I think our player dining area is the biggest on tour for the entire year.

No, we can’t recreate Crandon Park, you’re right, but I think what it showcases here is the versatility of this kind of venue. The fact you can have a Super Bowl here, a boxing match here, a Prince concert, Rolling Stones concert. A few years ago, we had a Rolling Stones concert shortly after the tennis event. It’s really incredible the vision that Stephen Ross had and what this entire team has been able to put together with the operations staff to make this possible.

The players are thrilled. I know many of the players were skeptical the first year when they just saw the plans. Now, since they’ve been here I make sure to check with a lot of players: How do you like the tournament? How is everything going here? I haven’t heard a lot of complaints so I’m excited about the fact they feel that the tennis doesn’t take a back seat but it is also amplified by all the events around it.

RP: You saw Stan and Holger Rune in Indian Wells have words at the handshake in a moment that went viral. When you were playing, you were known as a gentleman. Now, that you’re a tournament director I’m wondering what do you think when you see things get gritty and raw like that? For me, I love it because it shows this is real, this is raw, these players are very passionate and want to succeed. What is your view on all that? And does your perspective change now that you’re running the show—and it is a show.

James Blake: My perspective is that I like people being themselves. So if that comes naturally to you then I like seeing it. I would never like to see Pete Sampras going crazy on the court because that’s not Pete Sampras’ personality. I wouldn’t like to see Marat Safin bottling it up either because that’s not him.

RP: You faced some feisty characters: Hewitt, Roddick, Soderling, Safin, Radek Stepanek…

James Blake: Absolutely. And all those guys showed their true personality. It is raw out there. You’re in your most vulnerable state. I think Andy Murray is a great example of that. Off the court, Andy Murray is the most relaxed a human being as can be, just chill and out there on the court you see the nerves, you see the frustration boiling over and that’s when it comes out.

It’s because these guys and these women put so much of their lives into this sport. It’s so important to them. They live it every single day. So this is very important and very real to them and that’s the frustration coming out and that’s OK. I like seeing it.

RP: A couple weeks back, coach Patrick Mouratoglou posted his five greatest ATP servers ever. You faced four of those guys in matches or practices: Isner, Roddick, Karlovic and Sampras. Coach Patrick put Nick Kyrgios No. 1 because he says today’s returners are the best of all time, therefore if Kyrgios is the best server now he must be best server ever because he’s up against the best returners. I know you’ve always been a Kyrgios believer, what is your take on Coach Patrick’s list?

James Blake: I would put Isner at number one. It’s different when you have to factor in the technology changes, the different surface speeds. Pete was his big serve was high 120s and now guys are serving in the 140s.

RP: True, but Roger was in the 120s and Roger’s one of best servers ever.

James Blake: Roger was a pinpoint server and Roger was clutch. There’s something to be said for clutch, of course.

I just think it’s tough to beat 6’10” with a great motion, the angle he can create, he can hit it anywhere. John Isner doesn’t get enough credit for being a smart server as well. They think it’s all that he’s tall, but he’s a very, very smart server as well. Kyrgios as well is a smart server. I’d maybe rearrange that list.

I would agree with Isner, Roddick, Karlovic, Kyrgios, Sampras, yeah. The next sort of honorable mention servers would be guys like Goran, Krajicek, Becker, Wayne Arthurs was pretty incredible. So yes, I’d agree with the five guys on that list, I’d just shift the placement.

RP: You and Serena won Hopman Cup together. You know better than any of us what a hard-core competitor Serena is. And people always used to say it’s “Serena being Serena” because of this perception of her as this super-tough kind of Wonder Woman warrior. My question is: can you share any experience you had where Serena was not like the Serena image? Where she was funny or silly or emotional or just not the Serena image people perceive? A moment where you saw Serena do something totally unlike Serena or something that shattered the Serena persona?

James Blake: Serena was the reason we won Hopman Cup. She had a very Serena like moment with me when we won. I was playing Lleyton Hewitt, who at the time was number one in the world and I had lost to him maybe two times before that. And you had your separate locker rooms but it’s just you in there. Serena just burst right into the locker room after she won and said “you’re gonna kick his you know what and you get out there and you get right in his face!”

And I was like “Wow, Serena’s in my face telling me I gotta get in his face.” I ended up winning that match and after Serena says “I told you you would! I told you would!” So she was so intense.

But once you get Serena away from it, she is silly, she’s fun. She was practicing in Tampa with a buddy of mine and after one of those practices we went out one night to a complete dive bar. There’s music playing it might have been some sort of hip hop or Beyonce or whatever and there’s only 10 people in the bar. Serena gets up and starts dancing and having fun and just having a good time. She’s very, very down to earth and a very very cool person when she’s away from the court.

But on the court, I put Serena Williams and Michael Jordan as the two people I’ve ever met that have that winning mind-set. Where they will run through a brick wall if they have to and I put Serena on the same scale, the same level, of competitiveness as Michael Jordan.