James Blake is now an author, an activist and back in tennis — as a tournament director
He reflects on his encounters with police and when he’ll have ‘The Talk’ with his young daughters
When James Blake walked away from tennis five years ago, he wanted a complete separation from the sport he had played professionally for 14 years. Tennis kept him away from his family for long stretches, and he wanted to change the focus of his life.
“I wanted to get completely out of tennis to see if that was something that appealed to me,” Blake said. “You have to be selfish in sports, so I took six months to focus on my wife, daughter and the baby that was on the way.”
That focus on family — including his daughters, now 4 and 6 — remains. But Blake couldn’t stay completely away from the sport. He’s now working as a TV commentator, an author and, as of this year, the tournament director of the Miami Open.
Blake is also an activist and released a book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together, last year.
That road to activism is one that Blake, as a player, never expected to travel. That changed in August 2015. Having just arrived in New York City for the US Open, Blake was standing outside a hotel when he was tackled by an undercover police officer and handcuffed.
Blake’s ability to stay calm likely helped him avoid a life-threatening situation.
Blake spoke to The Undefeated this week about the lingering effects of that interaction with the New York City Police Department, his family and life after tennis.
What was going through your mind when the officer took you down?
That it was a friend, a fan or someone joking around. If you watch the video, I’m smiling. As soon as I was thrown to the ground, my mind shifted to what can go wrong. You think about what’s happened to Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Eric Garner — and you wonder what can go wrong.
The first words out of my mouth were, ‘I’m complying.’ He said, ‘Shut up.’ At that point, I couldn’t believe it was happening and no one was listening to me.
So your survival instincts kicked in?
Almost immediately. If I was going to do something totally natural, if I didn’t have a modicum of fame where I thought this might be a fan, I would have thought this guy was coming to hurt me, and the first instinct is to put your hands up to fight. Or turn and run.
If I fight, now I’m getting slammed. If I run, the same thing. Maybe worse.
What if my brother was with me and sees someone slamming me? My brother will likely come in and fight back, and with four armed police officers on the scene, he might have gotten shot. That’s something that’s now always in the back of my mind.
What did you expect to happen to the officer?
I saw the tape the same day. And I thought, if this goes public, this guy has to be fired. It’s an open-and-shut case.
What happened to the officer?
He lost five vacation days. When I found that out, I wasn’t thrilled.
And he sued you.
He tried to sue me, the city of New York and my publisher, saying I defamed his character in my book. He said I implied he was a racist and a thug because I said race played a part in the incident.
I’ll never recant that, because race was a factor. Luckily, the [officer’s lawsuit] got thrown out.
You withdrew your lawsuit against the city, instead asking New York to set up a legal fellowship to advocate for people who had unsettling encounters with police. Why?
I wanted to move to something positive, and I wanted to provide help to people who don’t have a voice or the resources. The fellowship is guaranteed for three years. If it serves a purpose and is helping the citizens of New York, hopefully there will be pressure on future politicians to keep it. The hope is it makes a difference for people who need legal help.
After the incident you mentioned your emotional scars. Do they still exist?
Yes, I don’t know if they’ll ever go away. The sense of feeling totally vulnerable at that time, when you know you’ve done nothing wrong, is tough.
Most things in my life, I feel like I have some sense of control over what’s going on. Like on the tennis court, I can control my side of the net. When you’re handcuffed and not being listened to, even as you explain they have the wrong guy, it’s a sense of impotence and you feel helpless.
Did you ever have any encounters with police prior to this?
With people of color, it happens all the time. I’ve had incidents of racial profiling. When I turned pro when I was 19, I got my first Nike contract and I had a couple of nice cars at a young age. And if you’re black, have dreadlocks, driving a nice car, you’re going to get pulled over.
I got pulled over a few times for nothing. My brother and I got pulled over in Harlem leaving a charity event, where police officers came up on both sides of the car with hands on guns, telling us to roll down our windows. They said we had a taillight out.
That was the norm. You know there are more eyes on you, and those eyes are going to be a lot more critical of a young black man in any sort of a nice vehicle.
As a kid, did you get ‘The Talk’ from your parents?
I got a talk. It was done later. A lot of parents need to give that talk to kids when they’re younger, when you see what happens to kids like Tamir Rice.
My dad was very strict. He didn’t allow me and my brother to stay out late, didn’t allow us to go to certain places and didn’t allow us to do things other kids were doing.
As we got older — we’re talking high school — he explained that we lived in Fairfield [Connecticut], 98 percent white, and if I was at a party at midnight and the cops showed up to see 60 kids and one tall black kid, I would get singled out. He didn’t want me in a bad situation.
He didn’t allow us to play with guns — water guns, toy guns, cap pistols, no guns were allowed. He didn’t want us in a situation where someone would mistake a toy gun for the real thing.
He distanced us from those situations as kids, and it was only later that he explained why.
Do you plan to have ‘The Talk’ with your daughters?
Definitely. I have two girls, and I’m still wrestling with how the talk is going to go and what needs to be said. There will be something to be said about police, about treatment, about profiling and how we treat people. Maybe it coincides when they see that video of me and start asking questions.
Let’s talk about your post-tennis career. Did you prepare for it while you played?
I thought about my post-career but didn’t really focus on it until after I retired.
A lot of athletes have problems leaving the spotlight — was that tough for you?
Not at all. Having a daughter, it was easy to change my focus when tennis was over. I knew when I got into tennis I was entering a world where my life was public. But I was never interested in being in the spotlight. I was only interested in getting better in tennis.
Are you where you want to be in your post-tennis career?
You can always figure out ways to improve. I’m trying to improve as a commentator and as a tour director.
The thing I do love is I’m involved in tennis. When I stepped away for a while, I realized I love the game and love the doors it opened for me. I want to do what I can now, using the knowledge that I’ve gained, to help it grow more. But I do want to do it in a way that allows me to spend time with my family.
Do your kids know you were once a top-five player?
(Laughs) No. A few times I put tennis on in the house and we’re watching and cheering for most of the Americans. They’ll show Roger [Federer] and the kids will talk about him being really good, and I’ll say, ‘Daddy beat him once.’ And they’re surprised.
Then they’ll see [Rafael Nadal] and say he’s really good, and I’ll say, ‘Daddy beat him, too.’ And they’re surprised.
Surprised you were once a famous tennis star?
They’re 6 and 4 and don’t think anyone’s famous.
We met Shaquille O’Neal one day, and I introduced him to my girls and he couldn’t have been nicer, playing with them and calling himself the big tickle monster. And for the rest of the day they asked me, ‘Can the tickle monster come over later?’
Later we saw him on TV on the NBA show, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s the tickle monster.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, when’s he coming over?’ So they have no clue what being famous is.