The following article was written by Vito Ellison (@vblacklabel) for Blacklabel Tennis and Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) for The Sixth Set, it appears on both sites.
It is a rite of passage; a somber yet appropriate custom that those who have carried the mantle of American tennis have partaken. Saying farewell to the game you love is never easy, but having the opportunity to do so surrounded by 22,000 people chanting your name provides a poetic sense of closure.
Cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium never feels so united, so intimate as it does when an American standard-bearer takes his final on-court wave nestled in the loving embrace of his home crowd. Over the past decade, that scene has been replayed repeatedly. Rather than abruptly end their runs mid-season, or play out the string of European indoor events, most of the top American men have chosen Flushing Meadows as the last stop in their journey as ATP pros. Pete Sampras started the trend in legendary fashion, turning back Andre Agassi for the 2002 US Open crown, in what would be Sampras’ final match (though he didn’t officially retire until a year later on that same court). Michael Chang, Todd Martin and Agassi continued the tradition in 2003, ‘04 and ‘06, respectively. Last year it was Andy Roddick’s turn to say goodbye to the Ashe faithful. In the footsteps of his predecessors, Roddick showed flashes of his vintage form in his last outing. He ultimately he suffered a valiant defeat, this time at the hands of Juan Martin del Potro, before an appreciative crowd.
Sometime this fortnight, James Blake’s moment will arrive. Today, the 33-year old Connecticut native announced his intention to retire after the tournament, making this his final US Open.
It’s no surprise Blake would make the US Open the venue for his swan song. “Tons of friends and family are going to come out and watch,” Blake said at a pre-US Open gathering. “I grew up close to here, so for me, it’s my favorite tourney of the year, my biggest event. I love being here.”
Blake has great memories of the US Open, but taken as a whole, his 15-year career has been nothing if not tumultuous. After finishing two consecutive seasons ranked in the top 40, Blake suffered an annus horribilis for the ages in 2004. He fractured vertebrae in his neck after colliding with a net post during a practice with Robby Ginepri in Rome, developed shingles which temporarily paralyzed part of his face. He also lost his father, Thomas, to stomach cancer later that year.
|Blake at the 2005 US Open. Photo Credit: V. Ellison|
Blake vowed to return and his 2005 season earned him ATP Comeback Player of the Year honors. While he won two titles that season, his year (and perhaps his career) will be most remembered for a loss. Blake came out on fire against his compatriot Andre Agassi in a night session that still echoes on Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the quarterfinals of the 2005 US Open. Blake grabbed the first two sets against his legendary foe, before Agassi
was able wrestled the momentum in his
favor. It ended in a way it could literally only end in New York: a fifth
set tiebreak. Concluding at 1:09 in the morning, a then
35-year old Agassi emerged victorious 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(5), but
Blake won a host of fans who would follow him the rest of his career.
After falling briefly out the top 200, Blake finished 2005 ranked 23rd and climbed to a career high No. 4 the following year. Blake’s 2006 campaign was his finest. He won five titles, reached the final at Indian Wells, the quarters at the US Open again, as well as the final of the Tour Finals (ATP WTF). While he regressed ranking-wise in 2007,
hallmark win of his career came that season. Blake, playing
alongside Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan, proved to be an integral part of
the United States’ most recent Davis Cup title run. His win over Mikhail
Youzhny in the second rubber of the Final was the key to a
USA victory over a strong Russian squad. Blake would hover around the
top-10 until mid-2009 before an ankle and a serious knee injury
forced him to miss a significant amount of time.
While Blake’s ranking may not be as high as it once was, one thing has remained constant over the years. His passion for tennis and appreciation for the 15 years it has given him have never waned, even to this day.
“I still love the game,” Blake said, a magnetic smile laden with pride streaming across his face. “Once I get out on the court, the pressure of break point down, break point up, the crowd getting into it, I’m never going to duplicate that once I’m done playing tennis. I want to relish it and cherish it right now. I appreciate the fact that I’m out there when the nerves are going and you’re just excited to be playing and entertaining a lot of fans.”
Blake lives for the grind of the tour and the competition it provides. At only 6’1”, wielding a potent serve and even more dominant forehand, an exuberant Blake shocked 6’8” Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz in the first round of the Cincinnati Masters just two weeks ago.
In this last go-round at the Open, Blake won’t be relying just on himself for the energy to pull him through. “I think [the J-Block] will be here,” Blake said of his boisterous fan section. “They might not be as big as they used to be, because my friends had to go out and actually get real jobs, so some of them can’t make it out to the day matches, but if there’s a night match, there’ll be plenty of J-Blockers.” Blake’s not on the opening day schedule, but we would bet the tournament will give him center stage under the lights to make his farewell. For one of the biggest American stars of his generation, we couldn’t imagine it any other way.