In the world of tennis, there are few American standouts and even fewer African-Americans. University of Arkansas senior Blake Strode, the Hogs’ No. 1 men’s tennis player, doesn’t think about the racial differences between his sport and other NCAA Division I sports such as basketball and football. He’s more focused on his own game.
“I think I’ve been playing so long that I’ve gotten used to it,” Strode said. “It’s a different experience from those who play other sports and certainly makes for a slightly different experience at the collegiate level but I play tennis because I love tennis and it doesn’t matter who is or isn’t playing it with me.”
Ever since coming to Arkansas four years ago, Strode has worked hard in every task he has taken on, determined to succeed on the court and in the classroom and giving new meaning to the term student-athlete in the process.
“I work hard at everything with my long-term vision in mind,” Strode said. “I’m always thinking about what I am working toward and what I am going to achieve down the road, instead of how it affects me in the short-term.”
Ranked as high as No. 19 in his freshman season with the Hogs, Strode, a St. Louis, Mo., native, led SEC freshmen and the Razorbacks with 27 victories in 2005-06, including a 19-5 dual match record. Now a senior, Strode has amassed over 80 career singles wins and is ranked No. 15 in the country, his highest singles ranking to date. Strode and partner Matt Hogan are also a force on the doubles court, ranked No. 14 in the nation.
Strode’s prowess on the court reflects his life in the classroom where he has maintained a 3.9 GPA throughout his collegiate career, majoring in international economics and minoring in Spanish. Strode is also a recipient of the prestigious Bodenhamer Fellowship and as such, must meet strict academic guidelines that include proficiency in a foreign language by his junior year and studying abroad at some time during his collegiate career. Not an easy task as a student-athlete.
Not surprisingly, 22-year veteran Razorbacks head coach Robert Cox is continually amazed at the accomplishments of Strode.
“I’ve had some great student-athletes that have done well in the classroom, “Cox said. “But they’ve never been ranked in the top 15 in the country. He’s the first one that’s been tops in the classroom while ascending to such great heights in the national rankings.”
While most students would be overwhelmed by the academic and athletic responsibilities necessary to graduate at the top of their class and play at the No. 1 position for an NCAA Division I tennis program, Strode sees it as business as usual.
“I have to credit to my family, my parents with my work ethic, especially in academics,” Strode said. “It was always made clear to me when I was younger and wanted to play tennis all the time that I would take care of school or I wouldn’t play tennis. So I worked hard in school and was allowed to do what I wanted with tennis.”
Not only does Strode push himself in every way, he has also had a profound impact on his teammates, leading by example and, unknowingly, pushing his teammates to do better off the court as well.
“Here’s a kid that’s made his peers better,” Cox said. “Blake’s influenced these guys off the court so much. Our grade point average has gone up since Blake has been here because he’s put pressure on his teammates and it’s made them better students.”
Planning to focus on tennis after graduating in May 2009, Strode knows that tennis cannot last forever, even for those who play on the ATP circuit.
“I want to stick to tennis right after graduation since it’s my first love,” Strode said. “There’s a small window of time to play tennis so I’m going to focus on that first. I’m also applying to law schools for whenever I’m done with tennis and plan to pursue that avenue.
Whether Strode is playing tennis, studying law or attempting a new feat altogether, Cox knows Strode will be a success, not because of his academic or athletic talents, but because of who he is as a person.
“Blake’s a special young man, and he’s going to be a success,” Cox said. “He’s very strong, has a personality that does everything right and has a moral base that’s second to none. The next generation is going to be very successful if there are a bunch of Blake Strodes out there. He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure.”