Blake loss stills the voices of J-Block
NEW YORK -- The James Blake-Andre Agassi five-set match on Wednesday night was a classic. While the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium were packed, no fans experienced the range of emotion more than those sitting in Suite No. 244. Over the past couple weeks, tennis fans have been introduced to James Blake's fans first dubbed by Pilot Pen Officials as the "J-Block." Following his victory there and his run to the quarterfinals in the U.S. Open, the rowdy supporters had a topsy-turvy night. And we were there to witness it all.
Tension first started for the fans on Tuesday, when the USTA called one of their representatives and said that the suite (No. 236) that they had purchased for the last two Blake stadium court matches was no longer available. According to one member of the group, they were told that another suite -- one farther away from the Agassi box -- would be available to them, but not at the discounted rate they had received. They had five minutes.
Bobby Sires, whose wife played with James' mother at a tennis club in Trumbull, Conn., agreed to put the $17,500 charge on his credit card. Each fan agreed that they would pony up about $800 each for a ticket inside the suite. But they never had to pay because Nike, Blake's lone sponsor, agreed to supplement the cost. The company also sent more than 50 T-shirts with the group's now famous phrase "Fire it Up One Time" with a "Just Do It" on the back.
The "J-Block" had hit the big time. Nike was not only supplying the shirts, it announced it would selling them for $18, with all proceeds going to James' charity, the Harlem Junior Tennis organization. The USTA made its own "J-Block" shirts with the proceeds also going to charity. On Thursday, there were tentative plans for them to go on the David Letterman Show.
After a long three-set match between Elena Dementieva and Lindsay Davenport, it was time for the "J-Block" to shine.
Here's how it all went down:
9:41 p.m. Evan Paushter is pacing in the suite. "I'm a wreck," says Paushter, Blake's best bud who can't stop biting his nails.
9:43 p.m. When Paushter heads down to the player's box to sit with Blake's family and girlfriend, 40-year-old Bobby Dzurenda takes over as the group's leader. Dzurenda is the president of a company that makes artificial limbs and he takes the "J-Block" very seriously.
9:59 p.m. Dzurenda holds a meeting of the "J-Block" on the inside of the suite. The core of about 20 members is present, but there are at least 12 others who have joined the group as Blake ripped through the draw. "Anyone who leaves tonight with their voice is never coming back," Dzurenda says. Dzurenda then tells them the rules. "Remember, we are here because of James. There is no cheering when Agassi makes unforced errors. No whoops. No Get 'er Done's. But we still want to influence the crowd." Dzurenda also makes them aware of their sponsors -- thanking Nike and Heineken, which provided the food in the suite.
10:03 p.m. The group heads out to the suite's balcony. James' closest friends, the original "J-Block" members, get the closest seats. Anyone else has to find a seat behind or stand in the back. "Sorry," Dzurenda says. "It just has to be that way. We're pretty superstitious."
10:16 p.m. The match starts. The "J-Block" is making themselves known quickly, screaming lines like "Fire it Up," "Bam, Bam, Bam" and "What do you say, JB?" in between points. The noise coming from the suite is an organized cheering effort that the tennis world has likely never seen. And this was without being served beer. The USTA said it took away their beer privileges after finding a mess in their suite on Saturday night. "J-Block" members deny that this was the case.
10:37 p.m. The points are going very quickly and 21 minutes in Blake is ready to serve for the first set up 5-3. A group of officials come into the suite. They say there are too many people in it and that it is a fire hazard.
10:40 p.m. Blake wins the first set and the officials talk with Sires and Dzurenda about eliminating people. They say that the rule is that they can only have 20 people in the suite.
10:41 p.m. As the captain of the "J-Block," Dzurenda is forced to pick who should stay and who should go. Gone are an ABC producer and a camera crew, so too are people who are not original members. On their way out, two people claim that they have tickets and that other boxes have more people in them than theirs does. No dice.
10:45 p.m. As some others in the group try to influence the guards, Blake loses his support, gets broken for the first time in the match and is down 1-0 in the second set. "Come on guys," Sires says. "It's not about us. It's about him. He'll never know what happened." Blake rallies back.
11:20 p.m. James makes quick work of Agassi, winning 6-3 again. "J-Block" members hug and give hand pounds.
11:23 p.m. Everything looks to be in Blake's favor. Some members of Blake's cheering section hear the stat mentioned by the USA Network broadcasters: Agassi is 0-13 in the U.S. Open when he is down 2-0 in sets.
11:28 p.m. The "J-Block" has been able to inject energy into the crowd for the first two sets, but, with Agassi down by 2, the crowd is firmly behind their aging hero. "J-Block" fans find it hard to compete with the chants of "Andre! Andre! Andre!" as the third set begins.
11:54 p.m. Blake goes up 3-2, but Agassi wins the next four games and takes Set No. 3.
11:57 p.m. The "J-Block" does a one-time tribute to their sponsor by chanting, "Just Do It," as Agassi and Blake come off their chairs to start the fourth set.
12:04 p.m. As Agassi breaks to go up 2-1, Dzurenda decides that they are doing too many different cheers. "Let's just stick with the old stuff, he knows that," he says.
12:08 a.m. About an hour and a half after they were kicked out, a group of persistent fans who were not chosen to stay, are allowed in by security. It's good news. The "J-Block" gets a couple more voices for the final stretch.
12:23 a.m. Agassi takes the fourth set, 6-3. Emily Paushter, Evan's sister, wants to make sure that there are no negative vibes in the box. She turns to me. "You in with us?" "Yeah," I say, not having the heart to tell her that journalists aren't supposed to cheer.
12:26 a.m. To start the fifth set, the "J-Block" does their trademark, "BAM, BAM, BAM." For the first time all night, it doesn't sound united. "That sucked," said one member.
12:27 a.m. The television announcers now let the audience know that the odds are not in Blake's favor anymore. He's 0-5 in his career in five-set matches. A man comes into the suite saying he's a veteran tennis player. "If you really want to help James, you should scream, 'Come to net, Come to net,'" he says.
12:42 a.m. After breaking to go up 3 games to 2, Blake holds serve at love. The energy in the box is tremendous. "J-Block" members hug each other and then realize that a victory is still a long way away.
12:52 a.m. Agassi wins four out of the next six games to go up 6-5 in the final set. Blake takes it to the tiebreak.
12:59 a.m. Members of the "J-Block" are having a hard time keeping their composure. Some of them have their heads in their hands. They're up and down with every shot and contorting their bodies hoping that balls go in.
1:01 a.m. Blake wins the first three points of the tiebreak. But Agassi storms back to tie it at 3. Blake takes 4-3 and 5-4 leads before Agassi has a match point at 6-5. Blake saves it. But Agassi wins the next two points.
1:09 a.m. As Blake and Agassi hugged at the net, the members of the "J-Block" showed that they knew how to appreciate a good match. They were disappointed, but they clapped not only for the tremendous run of their hero, but for the fight put forth by a 20-year U.S. Open veteran.
1:16 a.m. "You never want to lose," said Bobby Sires. "But if you do, it's hard to say you could have had a better match than that."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.