NEW YORK—James Blake moved on from his life as a professional tennis player a little past midnight this morning, going out in a five-set loss to big-serving Ivo Karlovic on Louis Armstrong Stadium in the first-round of the 2013 US Open. (The retirement comes with an asterisk: He remains entered in the tournament’s doubles event.) It was an anticlimactic exit for the sentimental American favorite and former world No. 4: Afternoon rain played havoc with the schedule, and by the time the competitors took the court, what was billed as a “not before 5:30 match” didn’t begin until about 8:30 p.m. before a half-empty stadium.
Blake won the first two sets and seemed to have things well in hand over a strangely subdued Karlovic, but faltered in the third and fourth sets, surrendering them in an eventual 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) defeat. Along the way, Blake’s supporters—present in his friends’ box and in the southeast spectator seating area—conjured ghosts of the J-Block with chants of “Here we go, James, here we go” and other chestnuts from seasons long gone.
Blake left the game the same way he came in—with no illusions. When he announced his imminent retirement on Monday he volunteered that he knew his career wouldn’t end at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. And he’s right: Almost shockingly, in hindsight, he never made it to the semifinals of a major, never won a Masters event, never became No. 1. And yet, James (you’ll forgive me for lapsing into first-name familiarity; I collaborated with him on his memoir Breaking Back) connected deeply with American tennis fans, despite his very good but less-than-stratospheric results. And, as he moves on to whatever’s next—he’s indicated it might be television commentary, or perhaps a future gig as Davis Cup captain—it’s worth taking a moment to consider and appreciate why.
One reason was that, accustomed to having an embarrassment of male champions—there was an unbroken line that went from John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to Andy Roddick—American fans were perpetually hungry for the next one, and for a shining season or two, it seemed that Blake might be it.
But it was more than that, and something unique to Blake: Even before I met and worked with him, I believed that his appeal came from the fact that he seemed like the guy next door rather than an unapproachable, un-relatable athlete. That feeling spoke to fans’ ability to pick up on the genuinely ordinary life he led for his first two decades: He and his brother, Thomas, Jr., both played for their high school tennis team in Fairfield, Connecticut—then matriculated at Harvard University before turning pro.
James’ game was founded on an atomic forehand that was always fun to watch and his gentle off-court demeanor and humility always made it a little surprising when he uncorked it. He was the Clark Kent of tennis, the guy next door who possessed a secret superpower. (In two press conferences this week, Blake said that although he seemed naturally athletic, it was actually an illusion produced by hard work. His persona, then, was the product of his parents: His late father, Thomas, a stern and loving taskmaster who demanded 100 percent effort, and his soft-spoken mother, Betty, originally from England.)
Though his parents wanted badly for him to graduate from Harvard, by the end of his sophomore year he had become the number one college player in the country, and it was clear that his talents warranted a stab at the professional grind. He was already far, far behind the curve, having never attended one of the academies that had already become de rigueur for up-and-coming players. And so, promising his mother that he would one day return to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree, he set out on the pro tour, starting with the Futures and Challenger circuits.
The odyssey that followed was something that many fans related to because Blake seemed like one of us, with one exception: He was average guy, but one who discovered, in dribs and drabs, that he had the kind of special gift that people usually only discover they have in the movies.
Early in his career, Blake was plagued by self-doubt, a sense of not quite belonging among the pros. In a loss to Patrick Rafter at the Cincinnati Masters in 2001, he fell in a first-set tiebreaker, then dropped the second set and the match. At the handshake, the Aussie said to him, “You could have beaten me today, but I had the sense that maybe you didn’t believe it yourself.” Even fellow players seemed to feel a desire to see this everyman succeed in his improbable journey. (That was the same year Blake suddenly found himself in the spotlight after Lleyton Hewitt made some comments that many took for racist; Blake, unheard of to most fans at the time, defused the situation by taking the high road and emerged as a gentleman.)
Blake gradually climbed the ranks into the low 30s, and then, on a hot August night in 2002, took on one of his personal heroes, Andre Agassi, in the semifinals of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C.—and let his forehand rip left and right, shocking and aweing the legend in straight sets, then winning the final the next day.
Like so many members of his generation of American players, James lodged a strata or two beneath the top—in his case the low twenties, with seemingly little prospect of moving into the upper echelon. And then came his well-documented, Job-like summer of 2004: A freak, head-on collision with a net post in Rome fractured his neck (during a practice set, no less), his father died of stomach cancer, and he developed shingles, which temporarily paralyzed half of his face.
If Blake’s rise out of the college ranks had seemed the stuff of Hollywood, what followed next stained credulity itself: His neck healed, his shingles was cured, his friends helped him over the emotional hump of losing his father, and he returned to the pro tour, posting better results than he ever had before. After a brief return to the Challenger circuit, he won the Pilot Pen in New Haven, just up the road from his home in Fairfield, in August 2005. During the tournament, the J-Block—his blue-clad crew of friends and fans who cheered him on, sometimes more than other spectators appreciated—was born.
He carried the momentum into the U.S. Open, shocking world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the third round and riding his forehand all the way to the quarterfinals. There, he played Agassi in a match that … well, Blake said it best at his retirement announcement the other day, calling it the highlight and lowlight of his career. After being up a set and a break against the 35-year-old, Agassi roared back and won in a fifth-set tiebreaker. The match was was both a confirmation of Blake’s promise and of the doubts that plagued him. (Tonight’s loss to Karlovic, unfortunately, echoed that match in structure and outcome.)
Nonetheless, the momentum of that summer propelled Blake to even greater success in 2006: He won five tournaments (second only to Roger Federer that year), making the year-end Masters Cup in Shanghai and getting all the way to the finals, where he lost to Federer and ended the year ranked No. 4. Along the way, he notched wins over just about every top dog of the day with the exception of Federer, including Nadal, David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko, and Roddick. Once again, he fell just short of greatness—underperforming at the Slams—but if you took his career on the terms, of, say, a Rocky movie, where success was defined not by the championship belt but by proving he wasn’t just another guy from the neighborhood, then it was more than he ever could have hoped for. (The cherry on top: The following year he was part of the Davis Cup squad that won the Cup for the USA.)
Blake himself put it this way during his retirement announcement: “My goals, when I was playing tennis, instead of ranking-based, were, one, to keep getting better and try and improve every day in practice, and, two, when I'm done playing, put my racquets down and be content with what I did and happy that I did everything the right way. That's not saying I didn't make any mistakes. I'm sure I did. I made plenty. But I learned from them and did the best with what I could.”
In the last several years, plagued by injury—Blake underwent knee surgery in 2012—and the vagaries of age, his ranking dropped. At age 33, he entered this U.S. Open ranked No. 100. In his farewell performance, his forehand lacked the viciousness it once had, and he struggled mightily to summon it during the fifth set, when he broke Karlovic’s daunting serve to get the set back on level terms, only to lose in the tiebreaker.
Blake’s playing style often came under fire from the commentariat for being too impatient, too persistently aggressive, but he defended it to the end. “I have been criticized plenty for the style of play, keeping a coach (Brian Barker, who was in his friend’s box last night) too long, doing a ton of things that others from the outside see as wrong. 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.”
From the outside looking in, as Blake returns to his normal life, it doesn’t seem as poignant or sad as it did for so many other athletes—Sampras, Agassi, even Roddick. Blake was never quite like the others. In so many ways, it seemed like he was one of us as much as he was one of them.
“You know, there are so many athletes that say they can never replace that feeling of having that adrenaline rush [of competition], but I get more of an adrenaline rush now seeing my daughter wake up in the morning,” Blake said the other day. “That's something that I'm truly looking forward to, being able to spend more time with my wife and daughter.”
After all the matches and travel, endorsement deals and VIP treatment, after the constant thrill of thousands of people chanting his name, Blake seems to have not forgotten what the rest of us already know: Normal life is pretty good. He’ll do fine here.