The UK Observer By Gaby Wood So why, I ask, is he being compared to Arthur Ashe, rather than being called the next Jim Courier? Is the comparison in itself racist? 'I don't think it's racist,' Blake says, 'I think it's an absolute honour. To be compared to [Ashe] as a tennis player is pretty impressive, but to be compared to him as a person is just incredible. Everything he did, and all the fame and fortune he gained, and even his fatal disease, he found a way of using that to help others. One day, I'd like to feel that I deserved to be put in the same sentence as him, but I feel like I've got a long way to go.' Ashe said that race was the biggest burden he'd had to bear. Has that been true for Blake? 'Well, luckily there have been people like him to help change it, so I think it has gotten a lot better. I think there are still people who don't realise that it does affect your life to a pretty serious degree. I do my best to not worry about it. I learnt to play tennis at the Harlem junior tennis programme, which is 95 per cent African American probably. Then I went to school in Connecticut , where 95 per cent of my school was white. I had great friends in both places, so I was able to look past it and not think twice about it. Now I've realised it's not always that simple, unfortunately.' Arnold Rampersad is the professor of African American literature at Stanford University and co-author of Ashe's memoir. He thinks 'there is something questionable about calling Blake the next Ashe. Black players are always compared to other black players, even when they much more resemble white players. I don't see much comparison between the two games [Blake's and Ashe's], though Ashe has emerged, 10 years after his death, and even in his lifetime, as the epitome of some kind of gentleman athlete.' Blake, with his Harvard education, may be compared to that but, Rampersad thinks, there is a deeper reason why the comparison is misplaced. 'There's not the same occasion for Blake to be Arthur Ashe, because of the period of civil rights. To talk about Blake in terms of Ashe is slightly off-kilter, because while discrimination still exists, it's not the same at all. Blake has a much easier road to hoe, as they say.' Rampersad wonders more generally though: 'Why hasn't there been an African American male tennis player of the status of Ashe, or better than Ashe? It's said that tennis is a white middle class sport, and it is but it's still odd that no one has surfaced, because there's a sizeable middle-class black population in this country.' That is now changing. 'Before I got a little better known,' Blake tells me, 'people would see me walking around with my tennis racket and the first question any African American would ask me is: "Hey, do you know Serena? Have you ever played Serena? Can you hook me up with her?" I think that's great, because you know they're not tennis fans. And that's what I strive to do - to get more people to watch tennis, to turn people into tennis fans.' In terms of race, Rampersad believes that tennis is 'a very important sport'. It is, he says, like when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break into major league baseball: 'baseball is so significant in the American male psyche, and in another sport it may not have been so significant.' Blake wants tennis to be more like baseball. 'I think it's still a little tough with all the rules, you know, having to be quiet and everything. I'd rather see more personality in the crowds - baseball players can deal with 60,000 people screaming while they're trying to hit a 95mph fast ball - I don't see why we can't. I think it's just tradition that's holding us back.'