Blake, once spurned by Dunlop, signs with Prince
It doesn't pay to doubt James Blake.
Dunlop has learned that lesson.
The racket maker signed him when he turned pro in 1999 and extended their deal with him again in 2002. But when Blake fell out of the top 100 last year, Dunlop executives exercised their option to dump him so that they wouldn't have to pay him top dollar.
By the time he won the Pilot Pen in August, reached the quarterfinals in the U.S. Open in September and won the Stockholm Open in October of this season, it was too late to get him back. Every company in the racket business wanted to pay to have their product in Blake's hands.
ESPN.com has learned that the battle has been won by Prince, which will add the 25-year-old to their stable of endorsers that includes highly-ranked players including Maria Sharapova, Nikolai Davidenko and Guillermo Coria. Terms of the multi-year deal were not announced.
"Prince did an unbelievable job in presenting to James, from a technical and marketing standpoint," said Blake's agent Carlos Fleming.
Prince, which has an industry leading 40 percent of the market for tennis rackets that sell for over $200, was clearly looking for a top American man. Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri play with Babolat while Taylor Dent uses Wilson. Prince's highest ranked player before signing Blake was journeyman Paul Goldstein, who is currently ranked 67th in the world.
Six years ago, Blake was considered one of the most promising stars in the game. He left Harvard after his sophomore year, turned pro and signed deals with the likes of Nike, Dunlop and American Express. He not only had the game, he had the charisma and those dreadlocks that rekindled memories of Yannick Noah.
But things changed.
In December 2003, he shaved his hair. The following year, he broke his neck and contracted Zoster, a virus that affected his sight and temporarily paralyzed one side of his face. His father then died of cancer.
Just eight months ago, his ranking had slipped to 210, which forced him to play in challenger tournaments. He won two of them in consecutive weeks in May and slowly climbed back to the national stage, culminating in a five-set loss to Andre Agassi, who advanced to the U.S. Open semifinals with the win.
Fleming said he believes that his client's marketing potential "is greater today than it has ever been."
"When he originally signed deals at the beginning of his career, it was based on potential," Fleming said. "Now, he is actually doing."
Despite James' struggles, Nike stood by him. This year, they re-signed him to a four-year shoe and apparel deal.
Blake has never been associated with Prince before. He played with Wilson during his college career.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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