By Chris Casavant
|James Blake at 2005 Street Clinic|
Back in 2001, James Blake returned to Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Conn., his old stomping grounds, to pay a visit to a student who had written him a particularly interesting e-mail.
The letter was from a girl who was dealing with scoliosis, a misalignment of the back that had hampered Blake as a youngster. The girl, Haley Stebbins, explained in the letter that Blake was an inspiration for her because of the way he had overcome years of wearing a back brace to become a world-class athlete.
Blake spoke to Stebbins and handed her an outfit he had recently worn at the US Open. It amazed everyone in the classroom at the time and brought Stebbins to tears.
Jon Honey, Blake’s former high school tennis coach, recalled this story while speaking at a court dedication for Blake on May 1. The tennis courts at the school, now known as Fairfield Warde High School, were named after Blake.
"This girl had written him a letter and James was so moved by it, he wanted to see her," Honey said. "He's never lost the sensitivity for others. We just walked into the room and I said, 'Haley, James wants to talk to you.’ "
Honey said that a few days after that day, he ran into Blake’s father, Thomas. Thomas was unaware that his son had just done that. It’s one thing when good deeds are done out of the public eye, but another when they’re not even mentioned to friends and family.
"It tore my heart to know that someone else was going through what I did, and maybe I could help her in that situation," Blake said. "The people at the Shriners Hospital told me stories when they were in high school, and they made me feel like a normal kid, and I wanted to do that for her. I wanted to show her that she could be a normal kid, too."
Blake’s return to Fairfield was greeted by much fanfare. About 200 people turned out to watch the ceremony and those who spoke raved about Blake the person as much as Blake the tennis player.
A sign on the tennis courts’ fence now reads: "James Blake Courts; Home of the Mustangs."
"It means a whole lot to me," Blake said. "To see my name on the courts, I never had anything like this named after me. I’m used to seeing courts named after — I play on Arthur Ashe Stadium, or Louis Armstrong Stadium, or in France, Philippe Chatrier. Obviously those have a few more stands and a little more publicity, but to have any courts named after you is an honor, especially ones I’ve spent thousands of hours on."
Blake, who grew up in Fairfield and played junior tournaments in New England, was presented with a key to Fairfield, and in the town it was declared James Blake Day.
Honey said he first saw the Blake family on the tennis courts at Fairfield when James Blake was just a kid, barely big enough to control his racket. As a middle schooler Blake would hit with the varsity players, and he went on to become a star at Fairfield.
"I’ve been doing this over 30 years and he’s by far and away the best high school player in the state of Connecticut I’ve ever seen," Honey said. "People will ask me, ‘Is this kid as good as James?’ James was a special individual and he was just that good as a high school player."
Blake expressed his appreciation to the crowd for attending, and he said his home has always been Fairfield.
"I take offense when sometimes the media says I grew up in Harlem," Blake said. "Every time I come back to Fairfield it feels like it’s my whole family. I can’t believe this many people still care about me."
Blake is grateful he still has this home to return to. So many tennis players missed out on a normal high school experience while attending tennis academies, and since they spend so much time traveling, they lose touch with their home base. But Blake’s mother, Betty, lives in the same house James and his brother, Thomas, were raised in, and Blake now owns his own house in Fairfield.
"We were unique in that we didn’t go to an academy," Thomas Blake said. "A lot of foreign kids, and a lot of guys, and especially girls, spent most of their childhood at one of the big tennis academies. So they miss out on childhood or any kind of home like this. It’s kind of rough for them; they don’t have anything to go back to. There’s no end of the trip. You just kind of go back to another hotel or apartment somewhere else instead of actually coming back to something you have established."
Blake, who is ranked No. 7 in the world and has won two tournaments this year, giving him five career ATP titles, said he always makes time to return to Fairfield, even though his primary residence is in Tampa, Fla., and the Northeast doesn’t exactly present the best weather conditions for tennis practice.
"I know how to get places, I know where I’m going, I know the shortcuts," he said. "It makes me feel so comfortable to know where everything is, where my friends are and my mom. It’s just a sense of comfort and I really enjoy it. Every time I go to lunch I see someone else I grew up with, or knew some of my friends, or is a parent of a friend. It’s a good feeling to know the community really cares."
Chris Casavant is a sports writer and member of USTA New England’s Communications Committee. He won USTA New England's 2005 Judy Lacy Journalism Award for consistent excellence in the reporting of tennis in New England (Connecticut Post). He can be reached at email@example.com.