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Episode 01: James Blake

LIFE ON TOUR  

It’s a cool, late-August morning and James Blake is casually walking down 11th Street in Manhattan, the pavement still damp from the overnight rain. Blake is on his way to tape an interview for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and it’s here in this very city that he had several special and memorable moments during his fourteen-year career as a professional tennis player, including his emotional retirement press conference.

“I love New York. There’s always something going on,” says Blake, 38, an East Coast native by way of Connecticut. “I would finish matches at 2 AM and the city would still be alive. I miss that energy so whenever I’m back here, I try to soak it up as much as I can.” Blake, who at his peak was the highest-ranked American and #4 ranked player in the world, calls the US Open his favorite event of the year.

Although he’s in town for his regular gig as a commentator covering the tournament for The Tennis Channel, Blake is making the rounds for his other commitments: Ringing the NASDAQ Stock Market Opening Bell, a guest spot on “The Daily Show,” and a book-signing appearance. Despite the entire tennis world focusing on the year’s final Grand Slam event in nearby Flushing Meadows, Blake athletically saunters by businessmen and tourists virtually unnoticed.

Maybe it’s because he’s in a suit and tie and not wielding a tennis racquet. Perhaps it’s because his signature dreadlocks he wore in the early part of his career are now gone. The most likely reason is because Blake spent his successful career (ten singles titles) just outside the spotlight generated by his contemporaries, like his good friend Andy Roddick and arguably the two greatest male tennis players of all time, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Make no mistake, Blake still gets recognized from time to time and remains extremely popular with tennis fans across the world with his on-screen presence for The Tennis Channel, as well as staying competitive in the PowerShares Series, a sort of “senior tour” for former ATP Tour champions.

Of course, there was the time that Blake was wrongly recognized in the Big Apple. What resulted was a very public incident with the New York Police Department when he was mistaken for a suspect of interest and violently arrested in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel. Blake subsequently became a vocal advocate against police brutality, which spurred him to write his second book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together. Additionally, in lieu of suing the NYPD, Blake requested that a legal fellowship be created in his name to provide resources to strengthen the Police Misconduct Agency. Blake views his advocacy of social causes more important than anything he ever did on the tennis court.

“I think it’s great when athletes speak up, and I think the landscape has changed when they can connect with millions of fans with their phone and social media platforms,” says Blake. “What makes me feel good is that athletes are getting more educated on topics and are willing to speak knowledgeably.” Blake, a former tennis star at Harvard University before turning professional in 1999, is a model for the Educated Athlete.

james-blake James and his family visiting the site of their future dream home in Encinitas, CA.

Comebacks and tenacity seem to be a familiar theme throughout Blake’s life, starting from battling scoliosis as a teenager. The true test came in 2004 when he suffered a broken neck after colliding with the net post during a match only to have his father pass away from stomach cancer two months later. The stress of this moment caused the elite athlete Blake to come down with a debilitating case of shingles, which left half his face paralyzed and his vision blurred.

“I went to a specialist and he said there’s no guarantee that I would ever recover,” recalls Blake. “I was told that even if I made an almost-full recovery, I may not have the same type of ability to play professional tennis. I was very realistic of the fact that I may never play a match again.” Despite this grim reality, Blake saw a silver-lining in the long recovery process. “The best thing to come out of that time was spending so much more time with my friends and family,” Blake says smiling, clearly remembering a time in his life that shaped the rest of his future, both on and off the court. With the support of his family and friends, a cadre known as the “J-Block” during his playing days, Blake made a full recovery and eventually returned back to the ATP Tour the next year.

“As much as I thought I had perspective before, I had much more coming back. No matter what, at the end of the day I had people who love me and I would be okay.” Through hard work and determination, Blake won two tournaments that year – the Stockholm Open and his hometown event, the Connecticut Open – and was rewarded as the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year.

It’s been a month since Blake’s whirlwind tour in New York and he’s relaxing at home in Encinitas, 20 miles north of San Diego. It’s in this quiet beach city where, instead of forehands in front of 22,000 spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blake enjoys time with his two biggest fans: daughters Riley (5) and Emma (2). Along with his wife Emily, James makes time with his family his absolute top priority. “When I was playing before I had a family, I never used to really think about home. Now I can’t go two weeks on the road without getting homesick,” Blake shares on the morning drive to Emma’s dance class. Emma, in all pink, grabs Dad’s hand as they make their way through the parking lot of the neighborhood dance studio. Unlike his stroll in New York, Blake definitely sticks out in this crowd, as the 6’1” handsome former Olympian in board shorts and flip-flops is positioned between a dozen or so moms with their iPhones recording their tutu-wearing toddlers.

After being accustomed to spending 40 weeks of the year on the road during his playing days, home with the family is where James wants to make sure he’s spending most of his time. Admittedly, Blake says the physical demands in retirement are just as intense as when he played. “I’m more tired after a day with my girls than any time after a tennis match but that’s okay because it’s so much more rewarding,” Blake jokes.

These days it’s more elementary school drop-offs than cross-court drop shots. It’s the afternoon now and Blake is eagerly anticipating picking Riley up from elementary school before the family takes a drive to visit the construction site of their future “dream home.” As he makes his way up the hill to the school’s entrance, Blake calmly walks past other parents and children, going unobserved as just another dad despite his status as an American tennis great.

And if you asked him, he’s okay with that.

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