Chat with... James Blake, tennis star and Fairfield native

FAIRFIELD — James Blake stood on the Trumbull tennis courts where he, as a child, spent thousands of hours perfecting his play. He reflected on some of the turns his life has taken since his happy Fairfield upbringing.

He hit a pinnacle tennis ranking of fourth in the world, he weathered a difficult and humbling comeback and he spoke out, sparking national dialogue, after a police officer threw him to the ground and cuffed him in a case of mistaken identity.

At the Tennis Club of Trumbull Monday afternoon — young admirers, his mother and childhood and professional coaches among the group — Blake rallied with Fairfield University staff, alumni and tennis players and ran a clinic with high school seniors from Hall Neighborhood House in Bridgeport.

A Fairfield native and former Westport resident, Blake now lives on the West Coast.


“You might not make it to the U.S. Open, you might not be a professional tennis player,” Blake told the young players Monday, “but you learn a lot about hard work, about dedication, about perseverance and also about the genuine nature of the sport.”

That night, Blake spoke at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts as part of its Open Visions Forum, addressing in particular his wrongful arrest.

Raising his voice

Blake, who retired from professional tennis after the 2013 US Open, was in New York City for the event in September 2015 when, in a case of mistaken identity, a police officer threw him to the ground and arrested and handcuffed him on the street in midtown. Blake, who is biracial, spoke publicly about the incident and top city officials issued swift apologies.

Many saw the rough treatment as racially influenced and his story fueled national discourse amidst ongoing conversations about excessive police force. The arresting officer was found to have used excessive force and faced disciplinary action. But at first, Blake was hesitant to speak out.

“Being an athlete, being a guy, you think I’m going to take this on myself and I’m not going to talk about it. You feel vulnerable at times so you don’t want to bring anyone else in. It’s somewhat selfish to just think of yourself at that time,” he said in an interview Monday. “When I realized it could happen to other people and how many others it can affect, I wanted to do something, use my voice. Most people that that happens to don’t have a voice, and I, luckily, do so I’m going to try to use that to help others.”

It was his wife that convinced Blake speak up, asking him a simple question: “What if it had happened to me?” Immediately, he knew he had to act.

“There should be calls for reform, better training,” he said. “It’s something I feel is really important because I have so much respect for police officers. To make it easier for them — the ones that are doing it the right way — they need to hold the ones that aren’t doing the job the right way accountable.”

It was not Blake’s first encounter with racism, a specter he also faced playing tennis professionally in personal interactions and charged perceptions.

At times he heard names or whispers, part of playing a predominantly white sport where he looked different, Blake said. One supposed compliment with a racist undertone, in Blake’s view, was how often people credited his success to athleticism. Blake said in other sports he is only average and his success at tennis can be credited to his commitment and effort.

Reflecting on his experiences and preparing to stand on stage later that night in the town he grew up in, Blake hoped to empower the audience at the university to have a voice.

“Nowadays you see protests going on,” he said in the interview. “People are taking the world into their own hands, and I think there’s enough in the generation after me — in the millennials, the generation Xers and Ys —There’s enough of them together that if they have a unified voice, they’re going to make a big difference in the world, so hopefully they can use that for positive.”

Growing up in Fairfield

Born in New York, Blake moved to Fairfield around age 6, already showing budding talent on the court. His parents both enjoyed playing recreationally and would take him and his brother Thomas, three years his senior, along with them.

Ed Pagano, who opened the Tennis Club of Trumbull with his wife in 1985, coached Blake and his brother when they were children. He coached Blake for about four years before handing his training to Brian Barker, who went on to tour with him for a decade as Blake’s U.S. Pro Tour coach.

“James was good,” Pagano recalled. “James was very talented.”

From a young age, Pagano recognized Blake had talent and said the budding star would practice with players years older. But he said the level of success he has since reached in tennis requires far more than physical talent: self-discipline and mental toughness. Blake proved to have it all, his former coach said.

Blake’s brother Thomas also went on to play tennis professionally. Blake’s mother, Betty, recalled her youngest son always wanting to follow in his older brother’s footsteps. He was several years behind at Fairfield High School — when the town had one public high school — and then followed him to Harvard University.

Looking back with a grin, Blake called his childhood spectacular, a normal upbringing including the self-consciousness of high school and awkward teenage years. He feels lucky to have grown up in town.

“How calm it was, how peaceful,” he said. “You take for granted how nice it is here, being close to the beach, and I think once you get out in the world, you realize how good you had it as a kid. My parents were very loving; there was always food on the table; there was always something to do in the house. My parents did such a good job in raising my brother and I.”

Victory on the court

Blake entered Harvard believing he might be ranked fourth on the college tennis team. Shocked, he found out he was actually ranked fourth in the country.

As he began to consider a professional career, a big sophomore year win — all while studying for finals — convinced him tennis was surely his path.

In his 14-year career, Blake is quick to identify his toughest opponent on the court.

“Roger,” he said without pause, describing Swiss professional Roger Federer. “Roger’s the guy that no matter how well I was playing it seemed like he had an answer for everything. He was able to do everything I did and most times a little bit better, so that’s why I think of him as the greatest of all time.”

Whoever he faced, Blake continued to love the game — even when everything seemed to be going against him.

2004 saw Blake suffering from his father’s death, a broken neck and a serious virus. Despite all that, he managed to pick himself back up, his mother said.

The following year, Blake secured a wild-card spot for the US Open, eventually earning himself the Association of Tennis Professionals’ Comeback Player of the Year award.

“Every time I stepped on Arthur Ashe court I got goose bumps,” Blake said, referring to the tennis stadium in New York City where the US Open is held. “It was amazing because I grew up wanting to be a player there and going with my dad and seeing the players and thinking they were so good.

“It was so far removed from what I was doing as a junior that I thought it was like a world away. And then to be a player there, I never wanted it to seem normal. And it never did,” he said.; @LauraEWeiss16