Blake Strode: Head of the Class
By E.J. Crawford, special to USTA.com
It was the spring of his senior year, and Blake Strode had a decision to make. He was set to graduate from the University of Arkansas in May and had already been accepted into Harvard Law School. He was also one of the top collegiate tennis players in the country, having reached the semifinals of the 2009 NCAA Tournament to earn All-America honors.
So how does a 22-year-old soon-to-be college graduate decide between attending one of the world’s most celebrated law schools versus the long car trips and diehard tennis towns of the USTA Pro Circuit? For Strode, it was an easy call.
“I’ve wanted to [be a professional tennis player] pretty much my whole life,” Strode says. “The fact that I could defer Harvard helped make the decision a lot easier. It gives me a year to try to move up the rankings and build some points, see what kind of damage I can do and see if this really is something viable long term.”
The early results have been promising. Since turning professional this past summer, Strode has won a Futures event in Joplin, Mo., for his first pro title, and also reached the final at the Futures in Peoria, Ill., and the semifinals of another in Costa Mesa, Calif. He capped 2009 by defeating former top-20 player Vince Spadea at a Challenger in Champaign, Ill., and, in the process, improved his ranking from No. 1,203 in February 2009 to No. 552 at the dawn of the 2010 Australian Open. And because Strode turned pro after completing his collegiate career, he has virtually no points to defend until June 2010.
This professional success comes on the heels of a standout career at Arkansas, where Strode won 97 singles matches, was a three-time All-SEC performer and a two-time SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Along the way, he won admirers on and off the court.
“Blake has probably been the finest example of a student-athlete I’ve ever had, where he combines academic excellence with athletic excellence,” says Robert Cox, currently in his 23rd year as the head coach at Arkansas. “That doesn’t take anything away from the other student-athletes I’ve coached, but Blake seemed to balance it just a bit better and keener than the other guys.”
Strode honed his academic and athletic talents during his elementary school days in St. Louis. He grew into tennis as a member of the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network’s Ferguson, Mo., Net Rushers, whom he played with for five years.
During that time he entered and won the national Arthur Ashe Essay Contest in the 12-and-under division, earning a trip to the 1999 US Open for the annual Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day celebration. In 2009, exactly 10 years later, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association named Strode the Division I recipient of the ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership & Sportsmanship Award. With it came another trip to New York and another US Open.
“It was a full-circle deal and somewhat unexpected,” says Strode, who returned to the Net Rushers in high school to serve as a coach. “But it was really neat to go back. And while we were back at the US Open this year, I got to meet the NJTL winners and went to their banquet and talked to them. That was pretty cool—to link back to what happened in the past.”
Four-year collegiate players have not enjoyed great success recently on the ATP World Tour, and Strode admits that he has a lot of work to do—and a lot of improvements to make—if he is going to contend with the world’s best players week in and week out.
Attitude, however, has never been an issue, and Cox, for one, believes that Strode has the work ethic and the physical ability to play professionally for years to come.
“I think he’s got top-50 potential, and I think he can get there because he’s playing for the right reasons,” Cox says. “He’s playing with a lot of heart and a lot of desire and also a lot of talent. He’s not out there playing these tournaments to travel or to have a wild social life. He’s out there to win tennis matches and see how far he can go. The sky’s the limit for him, and we’re all excited to see this young man succeed.”
Strode is excited as well, encouraged by his recent progress and emboldened by his strong results. For now, he is stressing the incremental improvements in his game and says his goal is to crack the top 300 by this summer—when the next class of Harvard Law School will be preparing to descend on the Cambridge, Mass., campus.
“My hope and my plan is to make a career out of professional tennis,” Strode says. “It’s nice to have that fall-back, it’s nice to have that Plan B, but I definitely want to make tennis work. And as long as I continue to hit my goals for myself, I’ll continue to play tennis.”
When it was pointed out that Harvard is a pretty solid backup plan, Strode laughs and admits that yes, things could be far worse.
“It’s something I do want to do eventually,” he says of becoming a lawyer, “but tennis is definitely my priority right now.”