Blake calls time on career at US Open
Originally published on: 26/08/13 00:00
That’s how James Blake, the 33-year-old former world No. 4 who overcame scoliosis as a kid and a broken neck as a pro, announced his retirement after the US Open.
Sat in a Thomas Reynolds polo shirt, the boutique Fila brand named after his late father, Blake struggled to hold back the tears as he delivered his statement to the press, who had expected as much when they were informed of the news conference on Sunday.
“I have had 14 pretty darn good years on tour, loved every minute of it, and I definitely couldn't have asked for a better career,” continued Blake, who face Ivo Karlovic in the first round. “For me to think of matches I should have won and to make those as regrets for me has always just seemed greedy.”
His emotions got the better of him when he began to talk of family life with his wife Emily and 14-month old daughter Riley. “Despite the tears, I’m actually really happy about this,” he said. “I can do it on my own terms.”
Doing things on his own terms has rarely been an easy proposition for New York native Blake. For five years from the age of 13 he wore a back brace for 18 hours a day to straighten the severe scoliosis in his spine, only taking it off for practice. That on-court freedom fed a rise through the American ranks that prompted him to leave Harvard in his sophomore year to turn pro. By 2001, at the age of 21, he was an American Davis Cup player; a year later, he claimed his first ATP World Tour title in Washington.
But a freak accident threatened more than just his career in 2004. Training with Robby Ginepri in Rome, Blake fell against a net post and fractured a vertebra in his neck in the collision. “I was millimetres from breaking my neck in the way that would have left me paralysed for the rest of my life,” Blake recalled. His father died later that summer, compounding his sorrow.
"He preached hard work," Blake said. "I have seen and heard about all of the fathers from hell, yelling at their kids for losing and berating them for playing a shot the wrong way or doing something wrong.
"He absolutely never ever did that. He just said, 'we're going to get better'. If I lost a match: 'What did you learn from it? We're going to work harder. Whatever your opponent is doing, you're working harder.'"
After a tough return to the tour Blake began to show signs of his finest form in late 2005, reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open on a wildcard, where he fell in a thrilling fifth-set tiebreak to Andre Agassi having led the match by two sets to love. His ranking topped out at No. 4 in 2006 and he collected 10 tour titles in all. His style has always been action-packed: his bullet of a forehand, once clocked at 125mph, was backed up by a picture-perfect one-handed backhand from the back court and no little aversion to finishing the job at the net.
While he never went beyond the last eight at the grand slams – barring a semi-final appearance alongside Mardy Fish in the men’s doubles at Wimbledon in 2009 – he took out top seed Roger Federer en route to the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympic tennis event in Beijing. He held three match points against Fernando Gonzalez in the final set but the Chilean saved them all, and after a disputed point late on he succumbed 11-9, leaving without a medal after losing the bronze match to Novak Djokovic.
A series of knee injuries took their toll on his form and ranking in 2010. A year later he had slipped out of the world’s top 150 for the first time since 2005. He arrived at the 2013 US Open ranked No. 100 in the world, where he will bow out in the style of his friend and Davis Cup team-mate Andy Roddick a year ago. When it comes, his last match will take place at the tournament he first played as a 17-year-old in 1997.
"I still love the competition,” Blake admitted. “That's one thing I will miss. I have told a couple select people, couple of the players, Mardy [Fish] and John [Isner] and Sam [Querrey], people I have been through so much with, and Andy [Roddick]. I have told them that one of the things I will miss is their friendship every day in the locker room, getting to hang with them, dinners, all the good times we have.
"The competition is something else I will miss. I will miss pressure-packed moments, break points, set points, match points, the crowd getting into it. But I'm so, so fortunate to have a life after this that I'm looking forward to with my wife, with my family."