Profiles in grace

What is grace? Is it the curving elegance of the tennis player’s serve or the skater’s layback spin?

The finesse of the ballet dancer’s or boxer’s footwork? Or is it the poise of the performer or athlete who has “met with triumph and disaster” and learned to “treat those two impostors just the same,” in the words of Kipling?

Christian theology holds that grace is the unmerited favor freely bestowed by God. But as President John F. Kennedy noted in his inaugural address, “…here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” And so perhaps grace is something that we bestow on others and, in so doing, on ourselves.

On Sept. 9, 2015, James Blake, the Yonkers- and Fairfield-reared tennis star, was waiting outside the Grand Hyatt New York near Grand Central Terminal for a car to take him to the US Open when his life changed forever. A man ran up to him and shoved him to the ground, handcuffing him. The man was a plainclothes police officer, who, with five other plainclothes officers, was there to arrest him for alleged criminal activity — despite Blake’s protestations and offers to produce ID.

James Blake working with a youngster. Photograph courtesy USTA.

It wasn’t until another, older officer arrived, Blake said, that the police realized that they had made a terrible mistake. This officer apologized to Blake, who just wanted to forget the whole thing and head to the Open, where he was scheduled to make some corporate appearances in his role as chairman of the United States Tennis Association Foundation. But at the urging of his wife, Emily, Blake — the grandson of a New York City police officer — decided to speak about the incident at the Open. The subsequent he-said, they-said resulted in a media storm that has had ripple effects. (On Oct. 3, the arresting officer, James Frascatore, filed suit in federal court against Blake for defamation as well as against New York City, its police department and the department’s Civilian Review Board for their handling of the case.)

“Two years later the incident is still with me, and I am forever changed by it,” Blake writes in his new book,“Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together” (Amistad/HarperCollinsPublishers, $26.99, 240 pages). “I’ve spent some of those years wondering how to address it, the injustice of it, as it relates not only to me but to anyone who has had a run-in or altercation with law enforcement.”

Blake has taken comfort, courage and inspiration from Arthur Ashe, the onetime Westchester County resident who was the first African-American to win the men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and the US Open and to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Despite contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during his second heart operation in 1983, Ashe continued his activism, adding AIDS awareness to a portfolio that included inner-city tennis programs in the United States, the quest to end apartheid in South Africa and protests against U.S. treatment of Haitian refugees. (The last took place in 1992, the year before he died.)

Ashe’s memoir “Days of Grace,” inspired “Ways of Grace:  Stories of Activism, Adversity and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.” The book is a kind of athletic “Profiles in Courage,” recounting how men and women in various sports have used life’s challenges to transform the lives of others. It is a timely book that will leave you wanting more. Not surprisingly, it includes a profile of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose 2016 protest of racial inequality, which found him kneeling for the National Anthem before games, has ignited a firestorm from the gridirons of the NFL to the White House. Kaepernick now lives in New York, where he continues to work out and give away a pledged $1 million, mostly to small nonprofits.

James Blake with his new book. Photograph courtesy USTA.

Just as unsurprisingly, the book also includes a number of tennis players. Some like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova — legendary singles and doubles players who are also longtime women’s and gay rights activists — will be familiar to you. Others, like Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic — former No. 1 players who were sometime doubles partners — will be less so. The two grew up in Serbia, learning to play tennis in the safety of a drained-out, specially outfitted swimming pool in Belgrade as NATO bombs rained down on their country during the Balkan crisis. Today, they help disadvantaged children in their own country and throughout the world — she through the Quercus Foundation, he through the Novak Djokovic Foundation and both as UNICEF ambassadors.

While Ivanovic and Djokovic were practicing between bomb bursts in the 1990s, Blake — some eight years older — was playing on the courts of Harlem and Harvard University, turning pro in 1999, his sophomore year. In a sense, he owes his life to the game: His British-born mother, Betty, and African-American father, Tom, met and fell in love on the court. Soon, Blake and his older brother, Thomas, were playing doubles with their parents in Harlem. “Even when we moved from Yonkers up to Connecticut,” he writes, “on the weekends we still headed down to the courts in Harlem.”

At his father’s urging, Blake decided to quit other sports at 13 to focus on tennis. He was rewarded with a career that took him to the No. 4 world ranking and key roles in two Hopman Cups and the 2007 Davis Cup for the United States.

But for all its balletic beauty, tennis can be a brutal sport. In 2004, Blake slipped on a clay court in Rome, hitting a net post and breaking his neck. His annus horribilis continued as he lost his father to stomach cancer and suffered a case of shingles that left his face partially paralyzed and his vision blurred.

Tennis players, however, are nothing if not resilient. Blake worked his way back in 2005, accepting a wild card at the US Open, where he lost to Andre Agassi in a memorable five-set quarterfinal match that had Agassi declaring, “I wasn’t the winner. Tennis was.”

Blake was named the Comeback Player of the Year and recounted his struggles in the memoir “Breaking Back.”

Three years later, he was named Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year, in part for his fundraising for cancer research and, through his foundation, raising seed money for cutting-edge science. He retired from the tour in 2013.

Since becoming an advocate for change in policing, Blake, who now lives in San Diego with his wife and two daughters, writes that he has lost a few friends. But he goes on: “What has also changed is my perception that there is nothing I can do to prevent the indignity of what happened to me from happening to someone else….To that end, I am going to use what I have, to do what I can.”

For more, visit jamesblaketennis.com.

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