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A Sit Down with James Blake '01, Harvard Tennis Legend

Harvard tennis legend James Blake '01 competes at the Miami Open in 2008. Blake now plays an administrative role at many of the sport's professional tournaments, alongside involvement in charitable and activist missions.
Harvard tennis legend James Blake '01 competes at the Miami Open in 2008. Blake now plays an administrative role at many of the sport's professional tournaments, alongside involvement in charitable and activist missions. By Courtesy of Cássia Afini via Wikimedia Commons
By Caroline G. Gage, Crimson Staff Writer

James Blake ‘01, the former Harvard tennis star who reached a career-high ranking of No. 4 in the world in 2006, wears many hats today: tennis player, commentator, tournament director, charity director, author, public speaker, and many more. Ten years after retirement, Blake continues to break barriers as he brings his life and tennis experience to the sport.

“I just knew I wanted to still be back in tennis, and I still had that desire, I still enjoyed the sport,” Blake shared with The Crimson.

The Miami Open, one of the nine coveted ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000 tournaments on the nearly year-round professional tour, wrapped up last week at Hard Rock Stadium. The coveted singles trophies were taken home by Daniil Medvedev and Petra Kvitova, culminating an exciting 12 days of play at the highest level of the sport. Blake became director of the Miami Open in 2018, making him the first Black tournament director on the ATP Tour.

Under Blake’s leadership, the tournament relocated to Hard Rock Stadium — home of the Miami Dolphins — and saw the construction of a state-of-the-art tennis facility. The move skyrocketed the event’s fan attendance, with a stunning 390,000 visitors in the first year at Hard Rock.

“The tournament director role has also been a wonderful fit because I feel like I can help the players,” Blake shared. “I come from, obviously, the playing background, so they know that they have a voice in the room, and it's the voice of a former player that knows what they're feeling, what they're sensing, and what makes the tournament good for them.”

At the same time, Blake has continued his work with charity and activism. In 2008, he founded the James Blake Foundation, which raises money for the Thomas Blake, Sr. Fund at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The foundation began as a one-time memorial to Blake’s father, combining music — Blake’s childhood friend John Mayer performed — and tennis. The events continued annually, and the foundation continues to raise money for cancer research. In the same year, Blake was awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Award.

In 2015, Blake became an “accidental activist,” after he was attacked by a New York City police officer while waiting outside his hotel in Manhattan. Blake wrote a book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together, in the aftermath of the attack which delves into his decision to use his platform to speak out on police brutality. The book dives into the lives and work of athletes throughout history who used their positions to speak out and create change.

“[The book] talks about being an accidental activist, because I didn't necessarily have a plan to be [an activist] until that happened when I realized I could have gone away and not done anything about it,” Blake said. “And as I thought about it, and reflected on it, instead of making a rash decision, I thought, well, you know, what if I had been James Blake the accountant, and that had happened to me? I wouldn't have had a voice, I wouldn’t have been able to make any difference. But I actually have the ability to speak to some people and to have this voice. And so I felt that that's my responsibility.”

Blake’s transition from athlete to philanthropist, activist, and tournament director was certainly a major change, but he has been a trailblazer throughout his entire career.

Before his selection as a wildcard for the 1999 US Open, the Harlem, N.Y., native was a standout player for the Crimson, placing him in the small subset of professionals who came from the college arena.

“College tennis was an unbelievable transition for me,” Blake shared with The Crimson. “It was really perfect because when I got to school, I was still 17 years old, about 150, 155 pounds, so I definitely needed to develop both physically and mentally to be at the level of the pros.”

In his two years at Harvard before committing to tennis full-time, Blake was a two-time All-American, playing alongside his older brother, Thomas. He was named the ITA National Player of the Year and won the ITA Rolex National Indoor Championship in 1999 to finish his college career. Blake credits his time at Harvard as critical for his development as a player.

“I really do remember so many of the matches I played [at Harvard]. I think it's partly because it inspires a feeling. The matches you play on tour are exciting and thrilling because of the fans, but there's so much more when there is that emotion attached to it,” Blake said. “That's where your memories I think are triggered. For me, so many matches in college tennis really sparked an emotion [in] me, whether it be so positive for winning a clinching match, or so negative when you feel like you let the team down.”

Blake won ten singles titles during his prolific career on the professional circuit before his retirement in 2013. His first title came in 2002 at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., where he defeated the legendary Andre Agassi in the semifinals. He would go on to collect nine more singles titles, as well as a Davis Cup team championship. Yet Blake faced a number of challenges along the way — in 2004, he broke his neck while practicing and later lost his father to cancer. Despite that, he returned for his best season yet in 2006 and continued playing until 2013. He played his last professional singles match at the US Open, where he was a wildcard qualifier 14 years earlier.

“It was a pretty natural decision, my body was starting to fail, really. And also, I had one daughter already and another was on the way,” Blake said. “So it actually felt like a really perfect time to step away where I could be much more involved and help my wife and be a part of the family dynamic a lot more than I had been as a full active tour player.”

The realm of tennis has developed a lot in the ten years since, and Blake has had a front-row seat.

“It's been great to see that the tournament, the tour, the level just keeps getting better and better,” he shared.

What’s to thank for the continually improving quality of tennis, and making it possible for players to compete into their late 30s? Better training, more money, and technology.

“Everything they're doing for recovery is really, really extending careers, and making for better players,” said Blake, referencing the influx of technologies like hyperbaric oxygen therapy, Normatec boots, and intense physical therapy. “Late in tournaments, when you might see some players faltering a generation ago, where they played too many matches in a row, a player is able to recover so much better now.”

Blake’s unique experiences have given him the tools to expand his impact far beyond tennis and into activism and philanthropy. With his intimate knowledge of the sport and its business, his involvement in charitable causes and activist missions, and his new administrative role at one of pro tennis’ most important tournaments, he is well-positioned to play a major role in the sport’s future.

Correction: August 15, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that James Blake ’01 reached a career-high ranking of No. 6 in the world in 2006. In fact, Blake reached his highest ranking of No. 4 that year.

—Staff writer Caroline G. Gage can be reached at caroline.gage@thecrimson.com.

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