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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, June 26, 2017

James Blake

"It is a funny thing the moment when your perception of the world changes," said James Blake.

Photo credit: James Blake Tennis.com

Flying around Arthur Ashe Stadium court as if aiming to launch himself into airspace, James Blake experienced the most exhilarating moments of his career at the US Open.

Ten miles from the Flushing Meadows, Blake was sent crashing to a Manhattan sidewalk in an assault that altered his life.

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On a sunny September 9th, 2015, Blake was standing in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown Manhattan texting a friend while waiting for transportation to the US Open when he was body-slammed to the sidewalk by an NYPD officer in what police called a case of mistaken identity.

Acting on a tip, a plain-clothes cop who did not identify himself and did not display a badge, charged and body slammed Blake. The officer handcuffed him for more than 10 minutes mistakenly believing Blake was a criminal.

Initially, officers on the scene claimed Blake was only detained for about a minute.

Only when surveillance video from the Grand Hyatt security cameras showed the entire assault did then NYPD Commissioner William Bratton acknowledge Blake’s version of the incident was the truth.

The slam to the sidewalk was a launching pad for reflection—and ultimately action.

“Two years later the incident is still with me and I am forever changed by it,” Blake said. “I’ve spent some of those years wondering how to address it, the injustice of it, as it relates not only to me to anyone who has had a run-in or altercation with law enforcement.”

Blake, named after his grandfather, who was a New York City cop, has decided not to sue the NYPD.

Instead, he’s written a new book, Ways of Grace, highlighting athletes—including Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Novak Djokovic— who have used adversity as a unifying rather than a dividing force.

Published by Harper Collins, Ways of Grace will be released tomorrow.

The book’s title is inspired by Ashe’s classic memoir Days of Grace.

“Ashe showed us that we can use adversity to heal and not hurt; we can use it to unite and not divide,” Blake said.

The Yonkers, N.Y. native grew up playing at the Harlem Junior Tennis Center, went to high school in Fairfield, Connecticut where he was friends with musician John Mayer and earned all-American honors at Harvard before turning pro.

These days, the 37-year-old Blake lives in San Diego with his wife and two children and works as an analyst for Tennis Channel.

Blake’s book is dedicated “To anyone who has ever chosen to take a stand for something greater than themselves.”

We caught up with the former world No. 4 for this interview in which Blake discusses the assault he endured, why he’s chosen not to sue the NYPD, the keys to Rafael Nadal’s resurgence as a Grand Slam champion, the Top 20 player he has called a future world No. 1 and most surprising qualities Roger Federer and Serena Williams possess.

Tennis Now: The book recounts the assault you endured by an NYPD cop in a case of mistaken identity. Afterward, you write only one of the five or six police officers on hand apologized for how you were treated.

Has the officer who body slammed you ever made any effort to apologize or contact you? What would you say if he did? My understanding is he is still employed by NYPD. What are your feelings about that?

James Blake: The officer who assaulted me never apologized and has not made contact with me in any way and I don’t expect him to at all. I don’t think he was legally able to when the investigation into his actions were still open.

Since then, I don’t think he would have it in him to stand up like a man to my face and admit he made that mistake. If he did, I would start asking him a lot of questions about the other incidents he has had. Or about why he felt it was necessary to attack me in the manner he did. My feeling about him still being employed is that it’s a shame someone like that has the ability to make life or death decisions for the community he polices. Those decisions also seem to be done without accountability.

TN: It was reported you will not sue the NYPD. What went into that decision? As a pro athlete and commentator, you have a public voice, a platform, what do you hope to convey or achieve discussing your case? How responsive do you feel NYPD officials have been to your case?

James Blake: My decision was that I am very fortunate to have what I have financially. I don’t want to turn this nasty incident into a windfall for me. Instead, realizing I have a voice that many others don’t have, I want to help those people with this incident.

I hope to achieve more accountability. I want the police officers to be held to a certain level of standard. It would benefit the good cops as well because the trust would return between the community and the officers that work in them. I feel the NYPD started off in a dismissive way until the realization of the video. After that, it was difficult to sweep under the rug, so they did pay attention to me. My talks with the city were always productive and felt like they were listening to the issue I had and what could be done for a solution.

TN: In the book, you write that you told the police to check your back pocket for your US Open credential and your hotel room key as proof you were staying at the hotel and attending US Open. You write it took about 10 minutes for them to finally check.

You also write you went to hotel security yourself to check the surveillance tape as police were claiming you were only detained "a minute or two" when in fact video showed you were in cuffs for 10 minutes.

What do you think would have happened if the incident wasn't captured on video tape? If you had not retrieved that surveillance video how do you think your case would have played out?

James Blake: I think the bigger factor was the video more than me being who I am. If not for the video, it would have been my word against five police officers. With those odds, the story from them would have been that I wasn’t even in cuffs and nothing happened. As credible as I am, I still don’t believe anyone would have seen my side over the police officers. So I think without the video, it would have been swept under the rug and nothing would have happened.

TN: You write: "My mother and father stressed education first, and then tennis." How has fatherhood impacted your perspective? It is said people don't fully understand their parents until they grow up and become parents themselves. How has fatherhood shaped your understanding of your parents? Are you more like your father or your mother in your parenting?

James Blake: Fatherhood has impacted my perspective on everything. I absolutely love my role as a dad and feel like I don’t even remember what my life was like before being a father. It has been such an incredible high to see my two girls learn and grow. To feel like I play a part in that every day makes me so full of pride and joy.

Being a father has definitely increased my appreciation for the sacrifices my parents made for me. It has helped me to understand why my dad was so strict and how much he loved me to continue teaching us the lessons we needed to grow up to be the men we are today. I’m probably a little bit more like my dad as a parent, but definitely not nearly as strict yet. That may come later though.

TN: A theme of the book is how sports can bring us together. When you look at America today, it can seem so divisive. What gives you hope and optimism that the cases of unity and understanding you tell in the book can transcend sport and impact our culture, particularly during a pretty divisive and sometime volatile time in America?

James Blake: I have just seen so many examples of sports bringing people together. They can build confidence and give people courage that they may never have know they had. It can bridge cultural barriers, language barriers, religious barriers and put everyone on the same playing field. That makes me optimistic that it can still have a huge impact on society at large.

TN: Billie Jean and Martina came out years ago. In the book, you write about former Vikings player Chris Kluwe and you both as members of Athlete Ally, focused on "ending homophobia and transphobia in sport by educating athletes."

It's 2017: Why haven't we seen a highly-ranked ATP player come out as gay during their playing days? Is it economics? Is it scrutiny? How do you think a Top 20 gay man would be received by colleagues on ATP Tour today and when you played?

James Blake: It’s really difficult for me to say why we haven’t seen a Top 20 or prominent ATP player come out as gay. I can’t pretend to know the journey any individual is on to get to that point of coming out. They may take sponsorship dollars or the reaction in the locker room into account, but I really don’t know.

I would applaud the first that does so in the future because it seems like there are hurdles to clear. I hope the colleagues in the locker room would treat him with the same respect they treat all of the players in the locker room. By that I mean go out on the court and compete just as hard in a fair manner and let the tennis speak for itself. That is my hope, but I don’t know if that’s the reality. If it’s not, I hope there will always be players that are willing to support him in his journey. I will certainly always be just a phone call away if necessary.

TN: Prior to Roland Garros you said you were happy to admit you were one of many people who were wrong in writing Rafael Nadal off as winning another major. Do you see any key technical changes since Rafa has began working with Carlos Moya or do you view his resurgence as more a case of Rafa being confidence and repetition player who regained that confidence through winning? You won the first three matches you played vs. Rafa, including the 2005 US Open when he was just 19. How is the 2017 Rafa different from the Rafa you encountered back then?

James Blake: I think Moya has gotten Rafa to hit the ball a little harder and be sure to start points with his forehand more often. His forehand is such a weapon and Carlos was so good at protecting his backhand that he has passed that along to Rafa. 2017 Rafa to me is a more complete player than I played at the 2005 US Open. Back then, I felt like he was the best clay courter adapting his game slightly for hard courts. Now I think he has made it so he can play his best on all surfaces. He has learned to be much more aggressive and finishes more points at the net as well.

TN: You have first-hand experience with two of the greatest champions tennis has produced. You played Hopman Cup alongside Serena, you beat Roger Federer for the only time at the 2008 Olympics. What qualities as players and as people impressed or surprised you most regarding Roger and Serena? What do you think would surprise fans the most about them?

James Blake: Roger and Serena both impress me so much. I do believe they are the two greatest of all time. Roger is amazing because he genuinely is that calm, relaxed and likable off the court as he seems. He is such a genuine, kind person that it is hard to believe inside him is that will and heart of a champion that goes out and demolishes opponents.

With Serena, it’s much more apparent that attitude of wanting to win everything she does. She is one of the most intense competitors I have ever known, male or female. She absolutely hates losing. I hate losing, but her attitude is amazing. But what may surprise some is how much fun she has away from the court. She is a riot to go to dinner with and is just such a fun-loving person.

TN: Last year, you said if you had to pick two young players who will eventually thrive as top players you would pick Nick Kyrgios and Taylor Fritz.

Kyrgios has played some incredible tennis this year. What is his potential and what are his biggest challenges? We saw Jelena Ostapenko break through and win Roland Garros. Can Kyrgios win a major title in the next year or two?

James Blake: I think Kyrgios has the potential to be a number one in the world player and multiple Grand Slam champion. But lots of things have to go right for anyone to accomplish that. I would say his challenges are the same as so many players: injury, illness, believing the hype, confidence, travel woes, complacency, wrong fit with a coach, off court issues. There are so many things that can go wrong for any player. I think he can break through to win a slam in the next two years.

TN: Working as a TV analyst is there anything you view differently about the sport now? What changes should tennis consider or adopt to make it a better television sport?

James Blake: I would incorporate a shot clock into the game. It would make it so everyone has a uniform amount of time in between points and there is no way to argue with the clock. That could speed up the game and take any guess work for the umpires out of it.

TN: If you were building the perfect player stroke by stroke, whose strokes would you choose?

James Blake: My perfect player would be: Isner serve, Federer forehand, Djokovic backhand, Monfils speed, Federer volleys, Nadal attitude and Murray tennis IQ.

Published by Harper Collins, Ways of Grace will be released tomorrow.


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