His trip to the top 10 in the world has not been without adversity and difficulty, but the experience has given James Blake a perspective that has prepared him for a future beyond tennis (and a return to Harvard).
As a professional tennis player, James Blake's life is lived on the road. But his journey has been long in ways measured in more than just airplane miles.
From a talented — but not dominating — junior player to a top 10 ranking, and from a tantrum- and racquet-throwing child to a man whose graciousness and demeanor prompt comparisons with Arthur Ashe, Blake has come a long way. Far enough to have been dubbed the "New Face of American Tennis."
When the "new face" is succeeding the likes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, Blake's direct predecessors at the top of American tennis and two of the most accomplished athletes in the sport, that designation can come with a tremendous amount of pressure. But Blake seems inordinately equipped to handle it.
For one, his distinction comes not just from rising to the top of the American tennis rankings, as he has traded off with Andy Roddick as the nation's highest-ranked player. It is the complete package that Blake brings that provides the breadth for the foundation on which the mantle rests. He manages to bring a combination of class and emotion to his matches. He is both well-liked and respected by his tour colleagues. He has a compelling comeback story of triumphing over adversity. Naturally it doesn't hurt that he has cover model good looks. And the fact that he has attended college, a rarity among the top-tanked players, also sets him apart.
For Blake and his family, it was less of a surprise that he attended Harvard than that he has become one of the top players in the world. As a child, he got his start in the sport, not in a swanky club with private coaching, but at the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem. His parents — both players and volunteers in the Harlem Junior Tennis Program — were his first instructors.
Later, when the family moved from Yonkers to Fairfield, Conn., Blake, and his older brother Tom, continued improving under the instruction of coaches there. But although he was an avid competitor, Blake was on the small side as a youngster — a nine-inch growth spurt in high school changed his stature and his game — and neither his parents, nor his coaches foresaw a professional career as successful as he has had.
Perhaps, partially because of that, both Blake and his parents always tried to ensure that he grew up as a typical teenager. Blake spent time with friends, attended public school instead of opting for a special tennis academy and, in general, focused on leading a well-rounded life with, of course, an emphasis on education. As children, Tom and James' parents would make it a point to pepper them with math and trivia questions and always emphasized academic achievement, not tennis, as the key to their future success.
Both brothers did well in school and tennis, and James ended up following Tom to Harvard. In considering his college choices, James was unsure about Harvard, partially because he knew that his brother had the No. 1 spot locked up and also, he worried about the challenge of combining both academics and tennis at high levels. But assurance from Tom that it was not only possible, but actually a great opportunity convinced him.
"Combining academics and tennis was not as difficult as I had thought it would be. That was due in large part to the help of my brother and the other teammates. They clued me in to making sure to plan out your time wisely. When I followed that advice, I really felt like I was getting as much done as I possibly could with the time I had set aside."
Blake entered Harvard as the No. 1-ranked 18-and-under player in the country. He immediately teamed with Tom to form a formidable doubles partnership and began winning collegiate tournaments in both singles and doubles. He became Harvard's first-ever freshman All-American and was the ITA Collegiate Player of the Year in his sophomore year.
By the end of that year, Blake was ready to pursue tennis full-time. Although he did not have immediate success, first working his was up through the minor league tour before beginning to earn wild card slots in the major tournaments, he was always able to appreciate the opportunity to earn a living traveling around the world and doing what he loved to do. Although his two years at Harvard may not have been the fastest track to tennis success, Blake has never regretted.
"If I had to do it again, I would definitely attend Harvard all over. I learned so much in the classroom and outside of it that the experience will always be invaluable to me. I also felt like I grew as a person so much in those two years that it prepared me for an independent lifestyle. I would not trade those two years for anything, even more success on tour."
His appreciation has only grown in recent years as Blake has not only notched his greatest achievements in tennis, but also overcome some tremendous obstacles in his personal life. In 2004 he broke his neck while practicing for a tournament in Rome. The injury was so severe that, for a time, there was some doubt if Blake would be able to walk again, let alone play tennis.
When he returned home to Connecticut to recover, he discovered that his father's battle with cancer had taken a turn for the worse. In retrospect, he considers his neck injury to have been a blessing in disguise. Instead of traveling the world to tournaments, he was at his father's side during what turned out to be the final weeks of his life.
There was yet another major challenge to come. A mere week after his father's death, Blake was struck by a case of shingles. The autoimmune virus caused paralysis on the left side of his face and affected his hearing and eyesight.
During his period of mourning and recuperation, Blake relied on his family, an array of close friends and the example set by his father to maintain a positive outlook. Forced to live without tennis, and face the fact that he might not be able to return to his previous level of play, he realized the importance of appreciating and enjoying his life outside of tennis.
But remarkably, he emerged from his ordeal a better player. In March 2006 when Blake achieved a ranking of eighth, he became the first black player since Arthur Ashe to be ranked in the top 10 in the world. Perhaps a major part of his resurgent game has been the new perspective he has gained from his tribulations. As he told reporters during the 2005 Australian Open, "it makes me think twice now before I really start complaining, and just try to appreciate everything that I have going for me, which right now I'm really happy to say is a lot. I'm back on tour. I'm having a great time. I'm doing what I love for a living."
When playing tennis for a living is no longer possible, hopefully at a time of Blake's own choosing, he looks forward to completing his degree at Harvard. "I know I have something to look forward to when I'm done. I can go back to school, finish my two years. Hopefully over a long career, I can learn exactly what I want to do in life after tennis, then go back to Harvard and concentrate on that, and do that."
— Meredith Rainey-Valmon