NJTL 50 for 50:
Sally Milano | June 4, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life. In this installment, we catch up with former NJTL participant and ATP pro Blake Strode.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Strode became active in NJTL at the age of 8 at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center and, at age 12, he entered and won the NJTL’s Arthur Ashe Essay Contest. Strode attended college at the University of Arkansas, where he earned degrees in Spanish and economics and was an All-American player for the men’s tennis team. During his senior year at Arkansas, Strode applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted but decided to defer attending for three years to play professional tennis.
He later earned his law degree from Harvard and then returned to St. Louis, where he is now executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm.
The Blake Strode File
Name: Blake Strode
NJTL Chapter: St. Louis chapters at Dwight Davis Tennis Center and Flynn Park
Role with NJTL: Alumni
Age became active in NJTL: 8
How did you get involved with NJTL?
Blake Strode: I grew up playing tennis in St. Louis. I used to play out at Dwight Davis Tennis Center, and in the summertime, I would basically spend all day out at Dwight Davis, and it would start with NJTL—I think it was Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings then, at like 9 in the morning. My mom would basically drop me off there before NJTL started, and then I would do that for two hours, have a little break, and then there was another afternoon clinic that I would do for three or four hours. So I would just spend all day, pretty much every day during the summer, out at the tennis courts.
I don’t remember who first recommended NJTL or how we first came to learn about it, but I had a lot of friends who played there, and it was just kind of home base for me, especially in the summertime.
Which came first… playing tennis, or did NJTL get you started playing tennis?
Blake Strode: I first started playing around 5, and then I started getting lessons at 8, and I think that was around the time that I started NJTL. It had to be about 7 or 8, when I was playing more frequently. And I don’t remember how I first learned about it because it was in Forest Park, at Dwight Davis. It was a very obvious fit.
You had a successful collegiate career playing at the University of Arkansas, and after that, you deferred your acceptance into Harvard Law School to play on the pro tour. How was that experience for you?
Blake Strode: It was great, it was great. I got to travel all over the country, all over the world, competing in tournaments and really pursuing my dream of playing professional tennis. I had a really great time, logged a lot of miles during those three years, and had some success. I got up to just outside 300 in the world [he achieved a career-high ranking of No. 311 in May 2012] and went from playing Futures, or qualifying into Futures, to playing main-draw Challengers, some ATP qualies, and, of course, the highlight was being able to play qualifying at the US Open three years in a row between 2009 and 2011.
When you were in college, you received the ITA’s Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship. What did that mean to you, to be honored with an award named for Arthur Ashe, one of the founders of NJTL 50 years ago?
Blake Strode: Arthur Ashe was always a personal hero of mine, and when I was in the local NJTL chapter, I entered the Arthur Ashe Essay Contest when I was 11 or 12, and I won it and got to go to the US Open that year, and they sort of rolled out the red carpet for us. It was really great. They took us to a [Broadway] show, we went to [Arthur Ashe] Kids’ Day, we met the president of the USTA at that time, met Mayor [David] Dinkins. It was just a really great trip. My mother and I went on that trip, and that had to be, I think, 1999. And then 10 years later, I won the leadership and sportsmanship award as a senior in college, again named for Arthur Ashe, who had meant so much to me as a tennis player and just as a human being, and so I got to go back and participate in some of those festivities again. But I also got to talk to the winners that year of the NJTL essay contest, which was kind of a cool coming-full-circle moment. To intersect with some little piece of Arthur Ashe’s legacy is really great.
Tell me about what you’re doing these days as executive director at ArchCity Defenders.
Blake Strode: ArchCity Defenders is a nonprofit, holistic legal advocacy organization, so our mission is combatting the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color in the St. Louis region, and we do that basically in four ways. We provide direct services, so we represent individuals in court in their individual cases, criminal and civil, across a range of issues. And then we also bring systemic impact litigation to challenge practices that are harmful to our clients. We do policy and media advocacy, so some of that is storytelling, helping our clients tell their own stories through traditional and social media, and also trying to translate some of that into policies that actually will benefit them and empower them, their families, their communities. And then lastly, we do a lot of community collaborations with other advocates, organizers, activists, to help build community power and community voice in the policy-making process.
I have been with ArchCity since 2015, and I became the executive director about 18 months ago—the beginning of last year. Now, day to day, I get to lead the organization, help set the strategic direction, do a lot of communications, media and events to spread the word about what we’re doing and try to get support for the work that we’re doing.
Would you say that being involved with NJTL as a child shaped your life or led you into doing the work that you are currently involved with?
Blake Strode: One of the things that was really great about NJTL is that, in a world of tennis that can be really homogenous, NJTL was a way of really bringing community into tennis and giving access to people, including many people who looked like me, who couldn’t afford to be a member of an expensive country club, who couldn’t afford to take expensive tennis lessons all the time. So what it did for me early on was help to make tennis feel fun and accessible and social and deepen my love of the game and love for the sport. And it also helped me learn more about Arthur Ashe and his legacy and the example that he set for all of us to make a change and a difference in the world. And so I believe that we’re all sort of the product of our many experiences, and for me, NJTL was a really positive experience that added to the person I’ve become.
What does it mean to you to be a part of NJTL’s history, as the program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year?
Blake Strode: I’m very proud to be a part of NJTL’s history. I’m proud of the mission of NJTL, what it stands for, the way that it has really provided a positive impact in the lives of so many young people to introduce them to the sport, to help make it fun and accessible and, for many people, to be an entrée into a really wonderful sport that was a huge benefit in my life. I’m glad to have been a little piece of that NJTL history and hope that it continues to impact many more lives in the future.