James Blake - Tennis Star and Inspiration - from Harlem to Harvard to Top Tennis Player

April Tod

Last updated 6/15/2009 10:21:14 AM

If ever there was ever an OPTIMIST, American tennis player James Blake fills that category. After the death of his inspirational father and a life threatening illness, against all kind of odds he achieved the near impossible.

When he returned to tennis he ranked a lowly 200 in the world. Two years later he was in the world's top five.

You could almost be forgiven if you hadn't heard of James Blake before the US Open three years ago, well, he'd only played Wimbledon twice and in the early rounds each time, and the year before was forced to stay at home through injury even though expectations were running high having won a tournament earlier in the year, "that's what boasts your confidence at any level,' he said afterwards.

But it was his performance at the US Open three years later that was to prove so crucial to his career when he lost to Andre Agassi in a thrilling five set match.

So what makes James Blake the talk of the town and arguably one of the nicest guys on the tennis tour? Blake is black, 27, good looking, intelligent, and a body to die for. And guess what, he has an English mother who hails from the quintessential town of Banbury in Oxfordshire. "She moved to the States when she was 17," he explains, "but loves to show me where she grew up. I finally got to see where all her stories were coming from when played my first Wimbledon.

I remember going to a local pub with her and people even remembered her even though she hadn't been around for a long time," he tells you proudly. Understandably the name of the village, Misseldime is something few can forget.

There was a time when he could even have been considered to play Davis Cup for Britain but no-longer having previously represented the United States on several occasions. "I wasn't getting too many calls from the LTA when I was losing first and second rounds in junior nationals. It's unfortunate I can't play for both," he grins.

The first six years of Blake's young life was spent in the crime infested streets of Yonkers, a New York suburb where his parents lived before moving to the well-heeled town of Fairfield in Connecticut.

"In those days I thought it was pretty normal to have bars on windows and doors and not be allowed to cross streets on your own.

Connecticut was a nice change. Our house was broken into about four times, I remember coming home once and finding everything a mess and a couple of my toys missing. In those days you just got on with things. When we left, there was one of the biggest drug busts in history of New York across the street where we lived," he reveals.

'Got on with things' is exactly James Blake's motto in life. From Harlem to Harvard where he studied for a couple of years mixing with a plethora of wealthy students before deciding to make his way in tennis. He first started hitting balls with older brother Thomas, his on/off doubles partner when their parents took them to the local public courts; they also enrolled both sons at the famous inner city Harlem Junior Tennis Programme, which today James helps out financially. In those early days few people took any notice of this puny little kid with a big forehand and loads of bottle. Even his coach, Brian Barker didn't give him a chance and never for one moment thought he would reach the dizzy heights of professional tennis let alone end up representing his country in the Davis Cup.

Explains his mother who paradoxically met James's father on the tennis court when he was looking for a mixed doubles partner, "All we could afford was an hour's weekly coaching but he was so keen it paid off". Now Brian Baker who coached him in those days remains his full time coach, friend and travelling companion.

Because of his mixed up bring James is acutely aware of racial prejudice and if anything handles it well. Particularly noticeable was when Lleyton Hewitt directed an unprecedented racist remark at him during their second match at the US Open three years ago, an incident that remains largely forgotten partly because Blake diplomatically refuses to make an issue of the remark.

Sadly his annus horribilus also started that year. In May while practising for the Italian Open he run into a net post breaking a vertebra in his back. "It was a freak injury," he recalls, "but one of those things that had a silver lining. I hit my lower neck in the fall, had I not turned I could have hit the top of my head and probably ended up not walking again," he explains."

Fortunately Blake's recovery took only a couple of months but it was at the time his father was diagnosed as suffering terminal cancer. While home recovering, he was able to spend time looking after his father. "My father was at his sickest when I got home," he explains, "but while trying to cope with everything, I hadn't been sleeping much, and a lot of stress just caught up with me which is why I ended up so sick."

After the death of his father in July, Blake was diagnosed with a Lasma, (a form of shingles) that could have left him partially paralysed but for a quick thinking doctor he could have remained paralysed. "My whole my whole face was totally paralysed, it also affected my hearing, taste, sight and vision, I couldn't close left eye. As it turned out it was much more serious than my neck injury, if I hadn't been treated quickly the affected nerves in my face could have died. Luckily they didn't but it took about eight months to regenerate them," explains the one time Vogue Model.

It was during his convalescence that enabled James to reconsider his objectives. "Right now everything is feeling a lot new again. I thought maybe I had played my last tournament which is why I treat everything with much more appreciation. It was my father who taught me to be a man, he also taught me so much about life. It was amazing and unbelievable to see what happened to him. I'd never seen him sick a day in his life which is why it was difficult for me to watch him go though what he did. He could never do anything wrong, he was so strong and such a perfect model. He wasn't one of those people who'd tell you to do something and was out there doing something else. If he tells you to work hard you know he's working hard. He'd always encouraged me to read books and the first question he'd ask me when I was on the road, 'what book are you reading?'

"What he taught me has given me an example of how to be a father, and why I'd give anything just to be with him one more day, or to have one more round of golf. That matters so much more to me than having a new car, a nice house. He taught me that life has to go on even when the worse thing you can think of happens, and that took me a while to understand which is probably why I got so sick. He was the person in my life who was so stable and without him, life is a little tougher."

For the past year Blake has languished in the world top ten and only this year dropped a few places but his recent quarter final showing the Australian Open has raised the barrier once again. After tennis Blake plans to return to Harvard and finish his degree. "Maybe I'll get married, I don't know what will happen but I do know that having achieved what have in tennis, I can now be happy without tennis."