© Wesley Hitt
© Wesley Hitt
Blake Strode is smart enough to take advantage of an opportunity when he sees it. Only the world’s very best qualify for the US Open, and even making it into the US Open Qualifying Tournament is a heady task for a player in his first year as a professional. So when Strode, who last year deferred Harvard Law School to pursue a pro tennis career, saw a chance to compete in his first-ever Grand Slam, he leapt at the possibility.
The result: Starting June 1, the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network product will attempt to take the next step in his burgeoning career by competing in the USTA National Playoffs Southwest Sectional Qualifying Tournament, with a potential spot in the 2010 US Open hanging in the balance.
Strode’s life-altering decision came just 13 months ago. He was set to graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas and had already been accepted into Harvard. He was also one of the top college players in the country, a 2009 All-American in singles and an NCAA Tournament semifinalist. As per his thoughtful nature, Strode weighed his options carefully. But in the end, he says 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 gave 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.”
He will find out the answer soon enough. The Southwest sectional qualifier is being held June 1-6 at The Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in Surprise, Ariz. The winners of the 16 sectional qualifiers held nationwide advance to the US Open National Playoffs – Men’s and Women’s Championships, which will be held this summer at the same venue as the Olympus US Open Series events in Atlanta (for the men) and Stanford, Calif. (for the women). A victory there earns a wild card into the 2010 US Open Qualifying Tournament, held Aug. 24-27 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Strode’s coach at Arkansas, Robert Cox, says his former player should not be underestimated.
“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 honed his academic and athletic talents during his elementary school days in St. Louis and grew into tennis as a member of the NJTL network’s Ferguson, Mo., Net Rushers, which he played with for five years.
For college, he chose Arkansas and developed into a star for the Razorbacks. He won 97 singles matches in his collegiate career, was a three-time All-SEC performer, a two-time SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and the 2009 Division I recipient of the ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership & Sportsmanship Award. 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 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.”
Cox was one of the people who encouraged Strode to test the professional waters, and the early results have been promising. Since turning pro in the summer of 2009, 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, has improved his ranking from No. 1,203 in February 2009 to No. 504 at the dawn of the 2010 French Open.
For now, Strode has set his sights on improving daily and qualifying for the 2010 US Open—which, coincidentally, begins as the next class of Harvard Law School will be descending 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.”