James Blake retires with grace

Martin Rogers
James Blake retires with grace

As midnight ticked by so came the end of the road for James Blake, and after an almighty battle marked the final match of his singles career, another challenge presented itself immediately.

With the reality kicking in that he would never step onto a professional court again, save for doubles action at this U.S. Open, Blake – one of American tennis' favorite sons and proudest ambassadors – fought back tears.

Rare is the tennis player who truly says farewell on their own terms, and despite being surrounded by friends and family and the "J-Block" support crew who have been there his entire career, this was not how Blake would have wanted to leave.

Any five-set defeat at a Grand Slam is a heartbreaker, but the nature of this one – squandering a two-set lead against mega-serving Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic – carried a bitter bite.

Karlovic squeezed his huge frame into the second round with a 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 victory, but Blake had his chances and he knew it. After letting the third set slip, he took the fourth to a tiebreak before Karlovic's serve gunned him down. The final set breaker was a similar story, with Blake unable to find an effective solution to one of the biggest servers in the game.

"I don't know when it is going to hit me," Blake, now 33, said. "I don't think I will be sleeping much tonight. It is hitting me now that I am never going to have this again in my life and I appreciate every single one of you for being here.

"Everything I did, every bit of hard work was worth it. To do this for 14 years, to have so many highs and lows in front of you."

That quote doesn't even tell half the story. After two years at Harvard, Blake arrived on the pro tour as a happy-go-lucky, yet unfailingly polite and dreadlocked 20-year-old. His progress was solid, before a horrendous injury in 2004 when he broke his neck in a freak training accident, and before losing his father, Thomas, to stomach cancer six weeks later.

Blake rebounded admirably to reach a pair of quarterfinals in New York in 2005 and 2006, sparking a climb to a career-high ranking of fourth in the world.

The U.S. Open was always the highlight of any year for Blake, such was the affection with which he was held here. His easy manner, tenacious spirit and positive outlook won him an army of admirers, even in those years when his form suggested he was unlikely to be a contender.

Recent years were dogged by persistent injuries yet Blake continued to tread the tour's exhausting road, unable to let the dream die, even as he pushed towards 34.

His announcement at the start of U.S. Open fortnight that this would be his last was a mild surprise for only one reason: because the man from Yonkers had become part of the furniture.

Given the trials of his career, those physical ailments that manifested again this year with the kind of chronic shoulder troubles that is a tennis player's greatest fear, just being here, having the chance to say goodbye, and hanging tough with Karlovic was a victory in itself.

"I am definitely going to think of this match and how I could have won it," Blake said. "But I am lucky enough to still think of this as a happy moment because I have the rest of my life to spend with my [friends and family]."

With that, he walked from the court, taking one last glance over his shoulder and offering a tearful wave. Better players have graced Flushing Meadows, but few have been more popular.