- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- James Blake may never have won the US Open, but there is no question it was his tournament. If you wanted to pinpoint the moment he arrived, maybe it was the year he crawled through a trench under the fence and snuck in without a ticket. But more likely it was 2001, when Blake played No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
As the five-set match wore on, the stands gradually filled as word of the match traveled around the grounds, until the top of the bleachers were packed. The top row lined was standing room only, with plenty of US Open employees in their work uniforms standing and screaming for the player later called Jimmy Kid.
If you ask people to recall that match, they might remember how Hewitt made a clunky and racially tinged comment about a black linesman who called him for foot faults, gesturing to the two and demanding of chair umpire Andres Egli, "You tell me what the similarity is."
A few more might remember how Blake took the high road after a gutting loss, refusing to give name to what that "similarity" might be in an emotional moment. That grace became his defining characteristic.
That presence and poise was called upon again Wednesday night (and early Thursday morning), when Blake found himself in a tense, taut fifth set with the 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic. Before a small but raucous crowd on Louis Armstrong Stadium, Blake and Karlovic traded blasts on their way to a fifth-set tiebreaker which began, on cue, just after midnight.
Blake, who had previously announced this would be his final tournament, knew he was facing what could potentially be the last moments of his career. Karlovic was steadier in the final frame, though, and prevailed 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2).
Karlovic, who at 34 is actually one year older than Blake, finished with 38 aces.
The last came on match point and Blake half-heartedly challenged the call. The replay showed the ball nicked the line and Blake was done.
"I don't know when it's going to hit me," Blake said, with tears in his eyes. "I don't know if I'm going to sleep tonight. It's hitting me now that it's never going to happen again in my life. I appreciate every single one of you for being here."
He turned to his box and said, "I love you guys for being part of my life and part of my career."
Looking back, what was almost overlooked in the wake of that 2002 match was just how well Blake actually played. His forehand remains one of the best in the game, a force of will that can scrape off the edge of the baseline. When it was on, Blake was formidable.
"I've always been a big fan of James," said Roger Federer. "I think [his forehand] ranked one of the greatest shots out there because his take back is extremely quick. You cannot see where he hits it. He can also hit it moving backwards or forwards. He can pull the trigger. So you're never quite safe when you go to that side. It doesn't matter if it's pulled out to the forehand or inside out forehand."
Given all that promise, Blake may have seemed like a player who never quite reached his potential. Despite a career high ranking of No. 4 in 2006, Blake never reached the semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament.
"I know I have had a great career in my eyes, but it's not one that's going to go down in the history books," Blake said. "It's not one that's going to end in Newport, but it's one that I'm proud of. "
But the fact that her son was even able to play was amazing to his mother.
"It still seems like a miracle to me," Betty said. "He had scoliosis, he never should have been out there."
James and his brother Thomas Jr. were born in Yonkers, where his parents met on at the Fay Park tennis courts and fell in love. When James was 6 they moved to Connecticut, where he met the core of friends who would be the heart of his traveling fan block called the J-Block.
I met Thomas and Betty during a rain delay during the 2001 Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. They were waiting for James to get back out on court, but offered me a seat and opened up about just how real their son's far-fetched tennis dream was becoming.
"We reluctantly agreed to let him go, with the understanding that he'd go back to Harvard if he didn't do well in a few years," Betty said.
Imagine, Harvard was James Blake's fall-back option when he turned pro in 1999. Surely he was living a charmed existence, and perhaps that was true for a time.
Plenty of players grapple with injuries and slumps, but Blake's difficulties only began with his back pain. As he was beginning to establish himself in 2004, Blake's father Thomas contracted stomach cancer. While Thomas underwent treatment, James contracted shingles, which temporarily paralyzed his face.
It was the stuff of an ancient play by the likes of Sophocles. Thomas Sr. did not survive, and with his death there was a great sadness. Even now when James talks about his father, a fierce pride and flash of emotion light his face.
"If I could do it all over again, if I had, you know, a genie in a bottle and could make one wish, I'd wish my dad was here to see the rest of my career," Blake said. "But I know I'm lucky enough to have spent 24 years with a guy I couldn't have asked for a better father and someone to treat me -- to raise me the way he did and for me to learn how to be a man from no better role model. I look at myself as lucky in that situation, but those times were tough."
But nothing can take away what his father bequeathed to those sons, who both played professionally for a time. They had work ethics and perspective, and at Christmas, they would return to the Armory in Harlem -- where they learned to play -- to lead clinics.
"James has always been a great role model," said Dante Brown, the program director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program. "He comes from the same background these kids are from so he relates to them, and they can identify with him."
As a child in the program, Betty Blake recalls the day James met Arthur Ashe. She asked him about it when he came home, What did Arthur Ashe tell you? James revealed that it had nothing to do with tennis.
"This is exactly what he told them, 'Stay in school,'" Betty said. "James carries that message."
And his plan is to return to school, maybe not Harvard given that he has a family now and they are settled in Westport, about five minutes from where his mother lives. She still works at the Trumbull Racquet Club.
And perhaps the fact that James Blake is fundamentally the same person upon retirement as he was the day he embarked on his career will be his legacy. His trophy case may not be large, but he never compromised his sense of fairness.
"If my career just lets people know you have to do it your own way, because I have been criticized plenty for the style of play, keeping a coach too long, doing a ton of things that others from the outside see as wrong.," Blake said. "And I knew what I was doing was the right way and was the best way for me to have success. I hope kids can see that and can be strong enough with their opinions and their views to do what's right for them."
James Blake’s career won’t go down in the history books, but he has a lot to be proud of.