James Blake opens up as he prepares to retire

by: Andrew Friedman | August 26, 2013

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—With his wife, brother, and longtime agent looking on from the perimeter of a press conference at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, former world No. 4 James Blake announced today that he will retire from professional tennis following the 2013 U.S. Open.

Occasionally fighting back tears, the 33-year-old American said he was happy to be going out of his own volition, having endured a knee surgery last year that allowed him to continue his playing career. “I don’t want to be dragged out of this game,” Blake said. “I don’t want someone telling me I need to leave. I want to leave on my own terms. I’m happy doing that right now,” he said.

Though Blake can still produce the occasional upset—he took rising star Jerzy Janowicz out of Cincinnati just a few weeks ago—his current ranking of No. 100 doesn’t lie: The results have been few and far between in recent years; on his ATP player profile, the “career highlights” section hasn’t been updated since 2011.

Blake also said he always planned to retire at the U.S. Open, which has been a fixture of his tennis life since he and his older brother, Thomas, Jr., used to sneak into the grounds as little kids, back in those carefree days when such a breach of security was imaginable, even charming. Blake earned his best Grand Slam results here, twice reaching the quarterfinals, in 2005 and 2006 (he also reached the Australian Open quarterfinal in 2008); the 2005 effort ended in a five-set loss to Andre Agassi that is widely considered a classic.

Blake cited that match as both a highlight and a lowlight of his career—a highlight because he beat then-No. 2 Rafael Nadal en route to the quarterfinals, and that tournament saw the flowering of his friend-and-fan squad, the blue-shirted J-Block; a lowlight because he surrendered a two-set-and-a-break lead on his way to losing to Agassi in a heartbreaking fifth-set tiebreaker. (In the press conference, he said he hasn’t ever re-watched the match and doesn’t know when he will.)

Other peak moments Blake listed were being a part of the U.S. Davis Cup team that won the 2007 tournament in Portland, Oregon, and his surge to the finals of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, China, in 2006, where he beat Rafael Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko, and David Nalbandian before falling to Roger Federer in the finals. Blake ended the 2006 season ranked a career-best No. 4.

Blake said he has no immediate plans for his future, other than spending time with his wife and young daughter, and “working on my golf game.” He once famously promised his mother that he would return to Harvard University, which he left after his sophomore year to pursue a professional tennis career, when his playing days were done. Today, he said it was more likely that he would complete his undergraduate degree at Fairfield University or perhaps online. He also said that he might one day try his hand at television commentary, and that he was interested in becoming Davis Cup captain one day. 

Blake said he would miss the camaraderie of fellow American players such as John Isner, Sam Querrey, and Mardy Fish. “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.” He added that he will also miss “the competition … pressure packed moments, break points, set points, match points, crowd getting into it.” He said he would not pine for the constant travel or living out of suitcases.

Asked what mark he thought he’d leave on the game, Blake said, “I really hope … just that I did things the right way. I don’t kid myself. 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. It’s not one that’s going to end [at the Tennis Hall of Fame] in Newport, but it’s one that I’m proud of.”

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