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James Blake Announces Cancer Research Fund In Father's Memory

Sunday, July 13, 2008

It was about five years ago that James Blake and his family received the kind of heartbreaking news that everyone hopes they never have to hear about someone they love.

His father, Thomas Blake Sr., with whom he was very close, did not have long to live.

Thomas Blake Sr. died in 2004 after battling gastric cancer that was not detected until it had reached an advanced stage. If Blake Sr., like every cancer patient, had been diagnosed sooner, it would have greatly improved his chances of surviving.

And now James Blake, the No. 8 tennis player in the world, is trying to help other cancer patients fight the disease and improve their chances of survival. On Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, where his father was treated, James Blake formally announced the launch of the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund that he has established with a goal of raising at least $1 million over the course of the next year for cancer research at Sloan-Kettering, especially improving early detection and screening.

Blake’s mother, Betty, was also among those present on Thursday and commented on how proud she is of her son and his efforts in his father’s memory. Those on hand also included Dr. Harold Varmus, the president of Sloan-Kettering, and Burke King, the president of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in Virginia.

"My father did everything he could, but it was detected too late,” Blake said. "If someone does have that energy in them to fight and the will to live, then if you can detect it early, you give them that better chance and the opportunity to survive and spend more time with their family. I feel early detection is one of the most important roles in cancer research.”

"If they had caught this (his father’s cancer) earlier – the reason I am doing the early detection – they think he would have had a better chance. He did everything he could once they told him what they could do, whether it was experimental, working out more, staying off his feet. Anything he could do, he was doing it,” Blake added. "I just wish his hard work had paid off, but the sentiment that he was still working hard up until the last opportunity just spoke volumes to me about his character; that no matter what, he never gave up, and he definitely practiced what he preached.”

The fund has already raised more than $500,000 and hopes to reach the goal of $1 million through several initiatives. Blake and Nike have partnered to create a line of merchandise called "J-Block," with 100 percent of all proceeds going to the fund. "J-Block" comes from the name of a group of Blake’s friends who come out to tournaments, especially the US Open, to support him.

In addition, Blake, 28, has teamed up with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Virginia to host a tennis exhibition called Anthem LIVE!, which is now in its sixth year. The exhibition will feature Blake and his good friends and Davis Cup teammates, Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan. It will be held Sept. 12 in Richmond, Va., just one day before the U.S. Davis Cup team leaves for Madrid to face Spain in the 2008 Davis Cup Semifinals.

This year, Anthem LIVE! will benefit Sloan-Kettering, as well as cancer research at Eastern Virginia Medical School and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center.

In deciding which friends to ask to join him in the exhibition this year, Blake thought of his friends from the U.S. Davis Cup team, which won the title in 2007.

"We really do enjoy spending time with each other. It has been talked up in the media how much fun we have, and it's nothing but the truth,” Blake said of himself, Roddick and the Bryans. "We will have a great time down in Richmond and just continue that on the plane to Spain and hopefully celebrate then after winning the semifinals.”

As a whole, the tremendous amount of support and commitment Blake has received from friends, family and sponsors has meant a great deal, as he tries to make a difference. Anthem LIVE! was first held in 2003, and Blake teamed with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield for the first time in 2005.

When Blake joined Anthem LIVE! in 2005, he invited Roddick, as well as music stars John Mayer and Gavin DeGraw but thought joining the event would be just for that year. When he saw the support he received and the money raised, keeping it going was an easy decision.

"I wanted to make a difference and put on some sort of exhibition, some sort of show, to commemorate my father, and I thought it was going to be a one-time thing because I realized how packed my friends’ schedules were,” Blake said. "When I saw the response from the crowd, my friends, it just clicked that I have to continue doing it. After I saw how much money we raised, as well, I felt we need to just build on this. This can make a difference one time, but it can make such a greater difference from then on. Hopefully this year Anthem LIVE! again will continue that process and get to a million dollars, and then who knows from there.”

"(When) I asked John Mayer, Andy Roddick and Gavin DeGraw, not one of them checked their schedules before they said yes,” he added of his friends. “With the support I got then and Andre Agassi saying he would do it the next year and this year, when I asked Andy again, he came on board to support me, (it) made it so easy for me to continue doing this. I think they know I feel the same way if the roles were reversed and they had a cause they were passionate about and needed my help."

Also in the way of fundraising this year for Blake is a kickoff party at the 2008 US Open with the help of the magazine Vogue. A Thomas Blake Sr. scholarship fund has also been created at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, Conn., Blake and his older brother Thomas’ old high school.

"I hope other people can see he (Blake Sr.) would be a great role model for anyone, not just his own sons. That is why it means so much to have a fund named after him," Blake added. "I just want the kids that do get that scholarship to know what he stood for and how much he stressed academics and how much he wanted kids to be prepared for the life they were going to lead."

Before Anthem LIVE! and Davis Cup in September, Blake will compete this summer in several tournaments in the Olympus US Open Series and then travel to Beijing as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team for the first time. After the Olympics, he will be back in New York for the 2008 US Open.

Blake was unable to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, after he fractured vertebrae in his neck during an accident at a practice session in Rome with Robby Ginepri in May. Shortly afterwards was when his father died, and then Blake came down with a virus called Zoster, similar to shingles. It paralyzed part of his face temporarily and affected his senses, including hearing and taste.

He rebounded in 2005, and his tennis career has been flying high since. He is looking forward to his first Olympics.

"It is something I think every kid dreams about. You see the Olympics on TV -- see the track stars, swimming, all the different events -- and you realize those people have worked four years to get to that one moment and how thrilled they are. You see so many tears on the podium and how much it means to compete for your country," Blake said.

"For me, it is an unbelievable honor to be part of the Davis Cup team and now to finally be part of the Olympic team, as well. It might be one of the only times I'll be nervous on a tennis court again," he added. "Davis Cup is one time where it gets you a little bit when you hear 'Advantage U.S.A.,' and it will be similar for the Olympics, I think. It will also be exciting for me to see how the others train, see the other athletes and what their routines are and how it differs from tennis and maybe learn something."

In the Olympics, Blake will compete in singles and doubles with Sam Querrey. The end of the Olympics conflicts slightly with the Pilot Pen (of the Olympus US Open Series) in New Haven, where Blake won titles in both 2005 and 2007, so he will be unable to compete there, near where he grew up in Fairfield (after moving there as a child from Yonkers, N.Y.).

He hopes to return to the Pilot Pen in the future, but on his list of tournaments he is playing in the Olympus US Open Series this year are Indianapolis, Toronto and Cincinnati, as he looks to win his first singles title in 2008.

Blake had a tremendously successful summer in 2007, reaching finals at three Olympus US Open Series events – Cincinnati, Los Angeles and New Haven (where he won the title) – and he finished second in the overall points standings to world No. 1 Roger Federer. He then went on to reach the fourth round at the 2007 US Open.

The summer hardcourt season is Blake’s favorite and is best suited to his power game. He is confident he will rebound on the hardcourts from a disappointing second-round loss recently on the grass at Wimbledon.

“I love the Olympus US Open Series. The surface is great for me. (Hardcourt) is what I play the best on. It is what I feel the most comfortable on, and also the fans, being in America, are very supportive of me,” he said. “I seem to do the best when I have that support, my friends are around me, it is my favorite time of the year, and I have done well.”

In terms of goals for the rest of 2008 and beyond, Blake of course wants to do his best in every tournament he enters, and he will work very hard not just to win on the court but off by raising enough money to reach the $1 million benchmark.

“I want to be prepared for every match, every situation I go into, and that is something in my control and I set as a goal,” he said. “That is going to be the most important thing for me when I am done in my career -- that I was prepared and I did everything I could and I can hold my head high knowing I accomplished everything my talent would afford me.

"The other goal, the attainable goal, is I do believe my talent, my effort and my voice will be able to raise $1 million for this fund. That is something I believe is attainable, and I will work tirelessly to make sure that does happen.”

Photos © Ron Terner/Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Posted by Shelia

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