Commentary

Blake leaving on his own terms

Only fitting former world No. 4 will leave tennis at the venue he cherished most

Updated: August 26, 2013, 4:42 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Several minutes into his news conference, James Blake began to lose it. His voice quavered, and the tears started to flow.

"I definitely did not think this was going to happen," Blake said. "But I'm human. Despite the tears, I'm actually happy about it. I came to this decision over plenty of time. I don't want to be dragged out of this game."

[+] EnlargeJames Blake
AP Photo/David KohlDespite his share of setbacks, James Blake was once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world.
A year ago, Andy Roddick lost the final match of his career here in the fourth round to Juan Martin del Potro. His tearful farewell in Arthur Ashe Stadium signaled the beginning of the end of an era.

Monday, on the first day of the US Open, 33-year-old Blake said he would join Roddick in retirement. That could come as soon as the conclusion of his first-round match Wednesday against qualifier Ivo Karlovic.

"There are a lot of things I'm going to miss, but there are some things I'm not going to miss," Blake explained. "The constant travel; living out of a suitcase; my body aching a little more than it used to; just not being able to recover the same way; playing a long match and then the next day not really feeling like I am sure my body will be up to the challenge the next day the way it used to."

And so, this generation of 30-something American male tennis players is going, going, virtually gone. Roddick, once the phenom and still only 30, is working for Fox Sports. Mardy Fish, the 31-year-old late bloomer, pulled out of this US Open and continues to struggle with his health. He might well be contemplating his own walk-off.

For Blake, it's been a physical struggle the past several years. A torn patellar tendon and the surgical aftermath set him back to the point that in April 2012, he actually considered retirement for the first time.

"Without my legs, I'm a below-average player," he told ESPN.com a year ago here. "To be honest, I was worried that my knee wasn't coming around. I was going to give it this summer. I was thinking that might be it."

Blake lost in the third round to Milos Raonic and played a few Challenger events in California to end the season. This year, his 14th as a professional, he's 9-13. He lost in qualifying at the Australian Open, fell in the first round at Roland Garros and in the second at Wimbledon.

Now, he said, he is comfortable leaving tennis on his own terms. It was something he contemplated at the beginning of the year, and in his mind, he always knew the 2013 US Open would be his last tournament.

On Monday, Blake recounted his highs and lows, sounding oddly detached from the events of his life -- with this exception: He narrowly avoided breaking his neck and suffering paralysis in a horrific crash into a net post in Rome in 2004. Later that summer, his father and greatest mentor died of stomach cancer. After that, Blake developed shingles and very nearly lost the feeling in his face.

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi and James Blake
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesIn one of the most incredible matches ever played at the US Open, James Blake lost an epic fifth-set tiebreaker to Andre Agassi in the 1995 quarterfinals.
Blake returned in 2005 and beat Rafael Nadal at the US Open, and later won the first two sets against Andre Agassi in the much-hyped quarterfinals. He lost in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

"The biggest highlight and lowlight at the same time was the Agassi match," Blake said. "I was coming back. He was possibly at the end of his career. Two Americans in the quarterfinals after I had beaten the No. 2 in the world, Rafa Nadal. Andre had different plans and played like a champion, the reason he is one of the greatest of all time. Third and fourth set were his without any trouble, and the fifth set we both came up with our best.

"I still remember that night was great for tennis. I still hear people talk to me about that match."

Much has been made of the woeful state of American men's tennis. After a sensational summer, John Isner is ranked No. 17, Sam Querrey at No. 31. Isner managed to crack the top 10 early last year, but you might be surprised to learn that, in addition to Roddick -- who finished as the ATP World Tour's No. 1 player in 2003 -- Blake and Fish also were once top-10 players.

Blake rose to a career-high No. 4 ranking in 2006 after a great fall season, including a second consecutive quarterfinal appearance at the US Open. It's typical of the experience of these 30-somethings that he lost to Roger Federer there.

Blake and Roddick and their American peers had the misfortune to be born at the most competitive period in men's tennis history. Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 33 of the past 34 majors.

Roddick won his first and only Grand Slam singles title right here a decade ago. Blake was a three-time major quarterfinalist. Fish, whose highest ranking was No. 7, also made it to three Grand Slam quarterfinals, and he won an Olympic silver medal.

Don't feel too sad for Blake, who might be that rare athlete who actually has a better second career in broadcasting. He is intelligent (he attended Harvard) and handsome (he once did a GQ spread). He made nearly $8 million in prizes and probably has earned two or three times that with off-court endorsements for Nike, Prince and Fila, among others.

He was married in November 2012 to Emily Snyder and has a young daughter, Riley Elizabeth. Spending more time with them, he said, was the thing he was looking forward to the most. His other priority is improving his golf game, which is "pretty poor at the moment."

As far as the future goes, Blake said he would like to be the United States Davis Cup captain one day, when Jim Courier steps away. He cherished his time with Roddick, Fish and the Patrick McEnroe-led Davis Cup crew as much as anything -- and has told them as much in recent emails and texts. He also said he might enjoy trying television.

Blake, who grew up in nearby Yonkers, played his first major main draw here 14 years ago as a 19-year-old. He was already familiar with the site because he used to sneak in as a kid. He seemed delighted as he described the hole under the fence on the west side of Louis Armstrong Stadium that was his point of entry.

"So, I apologize," he said, finally smiling. "If they want to take $40 out of my check this year for the tickets that I owe them, I'm happy to pay that."

No worries, Mr. Blake. It's a debt paid in full.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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