When James Blake decided to have a charity tennis exhibition back in 2005 to raise money for cancer research, he assumed he was asking his friends to participate in a one-time event.
Cancer research has been a cause near and dear to Blake’s heart since his father, Thomas Blake Sr., was diagnosed with and then passed away from gastric cancer in 2004. When he decided to host the exhibition, therefore, back in 2005, he wanted to do it in a way that was like his father—he did not want to feel he was burdening anyone to commit to an event beyond that one time.
However, after the success of Anthem Live!, as the event was called, Blake knew there was no way it could be just a one-time function. And after four years of the event being held in Virginia, featuring matches with fellow tennis stars like Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Serena Williams and performances from musical superstars like John Mayer, the event moved to Blake’s hometown of New York City this year, but the tradition of it being a smash hit continued.
At Pier 94 in Manhattan on Dec. 1, fans and friends of Blake’s were treated to Back Office Associates Serving for a Cure with James Blake, presented by Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, an action-packed evening of tennis matches, food-tasting from some of New York’s finest chefs, a fashion show from Blake’s new Fila line, as well as a performance from Grammy-award winning artist Wyclef Jean. In addition, many fans had the opportunity to a meet and greet with Blake and his participating friends—Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan—as well as rising American star Melanie Oudin, who was in attendance to watch the matches.
“It all started from a one-time thing. I thought I was going to do this in 2005, have a one-time event, ask my friends and then never bother them again because that is sort of the way my father was—that you do not want to burden anyone else,” Blake, originally from Yonkers, N.Y., said. “But after that first year, the response I got from the fans, my friends, from the people who were there, it just made it impossible for me to neglect that responsibility to do more.
“Back Office Associates has been a sponsor of mine since February, and I am really excited that they stepped up to really help me to have (this event) in my hometown where my friends could come watch because it was really tough for a lot of my friends and family to get down to Virginia to see it,” he added of how the event moved to New York. “Although we had great events there, it is nice to do it a little closer to home. If you need a place to grow, New York is definitely the place you want it to grow, and hopefully it will be bigger and better than it was in Virginia.”
All of the proceeds raised from Serving for a Cure went to the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund, which Blake established in the summer of 2008 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York to support cancer research in memory of his dad.
After the opportunity to meet and greet their fans, Blake and Querrey took to the court to begin the tennis portion of the evening. Roddick was originally scheduled to compete, but was unable to as he continues recovery from a knee injury. However, he still came to support his friend Blake fresh off his own charity event in Texas the day before, which featured a performance from Elton John. And he provided color commentary as his friends took to the court for their one-set match.
“Hit high balls short to his forehand,” Roddick recommended to Querrey at one point during the match, as he sat just below the chair umpire.
Roddick even provided sound effects of the ball bouncing on the court at one point, just before Blake took a 4-2 lead. Roddick then had to leave, and Blake closed out a 6-3 win on a volley winner.
“I was hoping I was going to be able to play,” Roddick said. “We had talked months and months ago, and I was always planning on playing, and I was not able to do that. I told James about it last week, and he said he still had a use for me, so it was important for me to be up here.”
Blake and Querrey then teamed up to take on the Bryans, the world’s No. 1 doubles team who are coming off winning the ATP World Tour Finals doubles title in London this past weekend. The Bryans took a 3-0 lead, but Blake and Querrey fought back, closing to 3-2 before the top-ranked team broke back and then took the set and match, 6-3.
Among those in attendance for the festivities were Blake’s mother Betty and brother Thomas, as well as Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Mayer, a friend of Blake’s since high school in Fairfield, Conn. In all, over 30 friends of Blake’s were in attendance, although not in their J-Block shirts that fans are used to seeing at the U.S. Open. (J-Block merchandise is also for sale, with all proceeds going to the Blake Research Fund).
“It is just amazing. I am continually surprised by it (the support he receives). I never thought I would have this kind of ability to get those people and the caliber of players we have gotten,” Blake said.
After the tennis was complete, fans were then treated to a food-tasting from host chef John Mooney and some other top New York chefs. Mooney has been executive chef at a number of high-profile restaurants, and next year, is opening a contemporary American restaurant and bar in the West Village.
From chocolate truffle tennis balls to pear and butternut squash bruschetta with radicchio and hazelnuts, fans had a wide variety of food from which to choose before enjoying the fashion show.
The fashion show featured Blake’s new clothing line with Fila, called the Thomas Reynolds Collection by Fila, named for and inspired by his father (whose middle name was Reynolds), which Blake debuted at the 2009 U.S. Open. Friends and fans received a look at the line’s spring collection, featuring performance clothing for both men and women, including accessories.
“He (his father) had his own style a little bit, and for me I used that style combined with what I have seen the last 10 years on tour,” Blake said of his new collection. “With all the outfits, I have seen good and bad, and I wanted to make sure I was doing what was right and functional.”
The final stage of the evening belonged to Wyclef, who opened the performance with “Hips Don’t Lie,” which he recorded with Shakira. On stage for nearly an hour, he performed “Gone ‘til November” amongst a variety of other songs and, at one point, called out his buddy Blake onto the stage to join him and a bunch of audience members.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Blake obliged, ditching his suit jacket and waving his tie over his head as he danced to the music.
In the end, it was a successful night of tennis, food, fashion and music and above all, helping to aid the fight against cancer. And the unwavering commitment from everyone meant the world to Blake.
“I just called Sam last week, and to have him come out means so much—that at the drop of a hat these people will say yes to me and be there to help me. Bob and Mike just won the season-ending championships; no one could fault them for taking a break. I am sure their bodies are a little beat up and tired, and for them to come out for a cause I am so passionate about shows they support me, and they knew my father and what it means to me and my family,” he said. “I am really appreciative of everything they do to help. And to have the chefs come out and to have Wyclef be a part of it, to offer his services, is just huge. I am a big fan of his, and I can’t say enough about how lucky I am to have this kind of support.”