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Tennis frees Blakes from mean streets

Brothers James and Thomas Blake have risen from the courts of Harlem to the pros.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2000


WESLEY CHAPEL -- James Blake has just flown into town, a quick stop before heading to New York for next week's U.S. Open. He is talking about crack houses and burglaries and rough neighborhoods, about concealing A-average report cards out of fear of losing cool points with the other kids.

Right now, they are little more than memories from his childhood in Yonkers, N.Y. But if James, 20, and his older brother Thomas, 23, continue their rise through tennis, their past likely will be as talked about as their future.

The Blake brothers are the ATP Tour's version of the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena). They went from Harlem to Harvard and are on the pro tour. James, ranked No. 205 in the world, is entered in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament that begins today. Thomas had hoped to enter too, but a nagging right wrist injury will keep him idle for another three or four weeks.

"It's pretty much all I could have hoped for," said James, after a training session at Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County last week. "I've been to Wimbledon and the Australian Open, places I wasn't sure I'd make it to. Hopefully, I'll keep improving, but it's great just to be kind of considered up there with the top players, playing in the same tournaments with them."

They are far from being among the tour's elite, but the Blakes are a long way from where they began, the Harlem Junior Tennis League that reaches out to inner-city kids and unexpectedly spawned two world-class pros.

Their father, Tom, is a salesman and a volunteer with the league that provides tutoring and mentoring. He enrolled James and Thomas soon after they started elementary school, figuring it would help divert them from the hopelessness and crime that permeated their Yonkers neighborhood.

"Our house was broken into several times. I remember one time we came home and the guy robbing our house was still inside," said Thomas, who shares a Tampa apartment with James. "My mom sent the dog inside and he started barking and the guy ran out the back door.

"It was a tough place to grow up. It got worse and worse, and my dad put us in the tennis program to keep us from getting into trouble."

The Blakes excelled quickly in the league and in school, always aware that poor grades could limit their court time.

"If I had a big tournament and I would have had to miss a day of school, I couldn't play the big tournament because my parents told me I had to make sure that I was studying hard and bringing home good grades," James said. "Otherwise, the tennis might have to be cut back a little."

Making good grades, though, didn't exactly win them friends in their neighborhood. Neither did playing tennis. So, the Blakes kept their high GPAs and growing tennis accomplishments a loosely guarded secret.

"I tried to play it off a little bit," Thomas said.

Unbeknownst to many of their friends, the Blakes were at the top of their class in school and on the court. With financial aid from grants and scholarships, Thomas got accepted to Harvard and anchored the men's tennis team, and James followed.

Thomas was an All-America selection before turning pro after his senior season in 1998. James played two years, reaching the 1999 NCAA singles final, which he lost to Florida's Jeff Morrison. After finishing the season No. 1 in the collegiate rankings as a sophomore, he joined Thomas on the pro tour last summer.

While Thomas has struggled to make any significant gains (he once beat former Wimbledon semifinalist David Wheaton), James has been working his way up. Playing in tennis' minor leagues, he won his first title, an International Tennis Federation event in Montreal, last year. He also teamed with Thomas to win a USTA pro doubles final in Winnetka, Ill.

This season, James has done well enough to qualify for a handful of ATP Tour tournaments -- San Jose, Scottsdale, Indian Wells and Indianapolis -- but lost in the first round each time, typically to a high-ranked pro such as U.S. Open finalist Greg Rusedski and Alex Corretja.

He had hoped for a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw, but those went to higher-ranked players. So he will have to fight his way into the 128-player field.

"When you're doing something you enjoy, you just get used to your habits of studying and training. You don't think it's anything special," said James, who volunteers at the Harlem league periodically with Thomas. "But once you look back and see what you've done, it's pretty fun to look back."

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