By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
When James Blake first decided to hold a charity event in memory of his father and raise money for cancer research, the immediate volume of support he received was overwhelming.
He had originally intended the fundraiser to be a one-time event but with so many friends, including superstar musicians John Mayer and Gavin DeGraw, fellow U.S. star Andy Roddick, and family members offering to do anything they could to help, but Blake knew he could not stop there.
Now five years later, Serving for a Cure continues to grow and Blake only finds more and more people willing to donate their time and money for such a great cause that is very important to him.
This year’s Serving for a Cure, presented by Empire BlueCross BlueShield, will be held on November 30 at Lincoln Center in New York City. The host committee for the event features many sports stars who have pledged their support, including Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mardy Fish, and Bob and Mike Bryan. In addition, Jim Courier, the new U.S. Davis Cup Captain, will be the evening’s emcee.
"It was something I wanted to do one time and it was something I wanted to do as a memorial to my father and with my friends. I was so overwhelmed with the support. I got the support of John (Mayer), Andy (Roddick) and Gavin (DeGraw) immediately, all of them just saying just tell me the time and place and I’ll be there," Blake said.
"It made me want to keep doing this and it made me realize how lucky I was and how much I could do. I have been lucky enough to have these friends and for them to care about me, my family and my father. I am really, really lucky to have all those people who agreed to join the host committee and the people who are also going to attend."
For the first time in the event’s history, no tennis will be played, although it will certainly still have a presence with so many tennis stars in attendance. Instead, attendees can bid for the opportunity to play the ever-growing game of ping-pong against Blake, Courier, John McEnroe as well as perhaps Fish and the Bryans.
The evening will also feature a VIP champagne reception as well as a live auction. For the evening’s final activity, there will be a live concert featuring Patti LaBelle and Ryan Leslie.
All proceeds from the evening will benefit the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Cancer Research Fund at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Blake established the fund in 2008 in memory of his father Thomas Blake Sr., who died from gastric cancer in 2004.
Last year’s event was the first time Serving for a Cure (previously called Anthem Live! when it was in Virginia the first few years) was held in New York, close to Blake’s hometown of Yonkers, NY and Fairfield, CT., where he grew up. Keeping the event in New York was important for Blake as it only increases the number of his friends and family who can attend.
"I love the fact that it is so close for me. I grew up in Fairfield, I was born in New York," Blake said. "So it makes it really easy to have a lot of my friends and family there that have always wanted to support my event and support the cause I am so close to.
"We wanted to keep it in New York but tennis is a little difficult (to find a place for). We wanted to maybe try something different and see if we could continue the excitement without the tennis," he added of the switch to ping-pong this year. "It is really catching on, it was on Entourage. It seemed like something a lot more people are doing and getting interested in so I thought it would be fun."
In determining who to approach this year to support the event, Blake started going through a list of friends who could make a difference as well as people he has gotten to know during his great tennis career. And just as in previous years, the ‘yes’ responses came back pretty quickly.
One of the first calls he made was to his friend Courier, also a tennis broadcaster, because of his New York location and his charismatic personality that would make him a great emcee. Blake has also supported some of Courier’s charity work in Florida in the past. He also turned quickly to his friends the McEnroe brothers, also New York locals, and more than happy to help such a great cause.
"Jim, Patrick, John all live in New York and all are luckily friends of mine," Blake said. "I have met so many people throughout tennis, it is lucky that they are all willing to help out."
Another person always willing to help a great cause like cancer research is King, with whom Blake has worked on multiple charity events. He knows he can always count on her support and vice versa.
"Billie Jean King is a pioneer in the sport," he said. "She has always been very supportive of really any cause that she can help out with. It is something that makes her one of the more generous people I have known. I always try to help her with anything she needs me for."
Outside of tennis, another good friend is Jordan, who is generally regarded as the best player in NBA history, and was also Blake’s childhood athletic idol. The Hall of Famer is now the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and certainly has a name and presence that could only help raise more money for cancer research.
"Michael is a friend of mine, he lent his name to the host committee and obviously draws a ton of attention and can influence a lot of people," Blake said. "I was happy he would be around to help out. He was and really is my idol as an athlete growing up. He was my favorite player, I posted him all over the walls and I wanted to be an athlete like him. I don’t there will ever be another one like him but I am proud to be a good friend of his. A lot of people when they meet someone who they put a pedestal from childhood, they get sort of let down when they meet them but I was never let down. He is a genuinely nice person."
Some of the other host committee members Blake was lucky enough to meet through connections, including Leonard. Blake’s girlfriend works for Leonard’s charitable foundation and introduced the two. And Blake heard a response he has gotten before; the boxing legend immediately said yes to helping Serving for a Cure.
"I have just been kind of lucky to have connections I made throughout my tennis career," Blake said of the tremendous support he has received. "I have been lucky enough to have a lot of doors opened thanks to tennis.
"I hope everyone comes out on Nov. 30 and has a great time," he added. "I am sure I will be running around a little crazy but I will be having a good time as well."