NEW YORK -- On Wednesday night, James Blake blew a two-sets-to-love lead to lose his final career match. By the time it ended a few minutes after midnight, much of the crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium had filed out and only the few first rows remained filled.
Despite the breakdown, Blake took his medicine and addressed the fans after the match. He acted professional and thanked them for their support.
"I could have finished this year a little better, this tournament, but to expect to win more matches in my mind would just be greedy," he said.
In an unfortunate reality for Blake and his fans, the match is poetic of his career.
During his first years as a professional, Blake appeared to be a rising star. In 2003, at 23, he reached a ranking of No. 22 in the world.
Soon after, Blake dropped off in the rankings. A neck injury and shingles in 2004, pushed him even further back. In April 2005, Blake dropped all the way to 210 in the world rankings.
In his prime, Blake motored himself back up the rankings, all the way to No. 4 in the world. He made three Grand Slam quarterfinals at the 2005 U.S. Open, 2006 U.S. Open and the 2008 Australian Open, and the semifinals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
After 2008, he slid backward again, all the way to No. 173 in March 2011. Entering this year's U.S. Open, Blake was ranked No. 100.
As close as Blake came, he was always denied the big prizes. He never quite reached stardom, despite hinting at having the potential. Every time he got American fans' hopes up, he just missed out on the spotlight.
Ivo Karlovic's 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 victory over Blake was similar.
During the first two sets, an emotional Blake fire to the court, controlling the pace of play. With only five unforced errors in the first two sets–Karlovic had 30–Blake was coasting into the second round. Despite the age and ranking, Blake was going to have success.
Until he didn't. Again.
Karlovic, ranked 79th, won the third set by one break and the fourth set in a tiebreak. In the fifth, Karlovic took a 4-2 lead. Blake dug into his shorts one final time to get the match back on serve. He forced a final set tiebreaker.
And then it ended. Karlovic took seven of nine points.
Again, when Blake could taste victory, he swallowed defeat.
"Hopefully this won't be my lasting memory," he said. "It was in my hands at times and I as the one that felt like I gave them away.
To a degree, the match timeline can be drawn similar to Blake's 2005 quarterfinal loss to Andre Agassi. Up two sets to none, Blake looked in control. Then his opponent rallied back and despite a fifth set revival, he lost in a tiebreaker.
"It's not a fun way to do it, but only one guy's holding the trophy at the end of this two weeks. I wish it was me. I did everything to prepare as if it could be me. It's not," Blake said of this year's plea.
The crowd was not huge Wednesday, but the fans were loud. The J Block, Blake's fan club, has given him one of the loudest audiences in the last decade, but without the superstar status, the size of Blake crowds has never been too overbearing.
Blake has never had a flashy personality and he keeps his press conferences conservative. Since his return from the neck injury, Blake has steered clear of the crazy hair he had as a youngster and his size does not wow anyone.
Blake made his tribute to the devoted day session fans who had stuck around and headed to the locker room. He went to his press conference and took questions from the media for over 20 minutes. Despite the fact the career he worked his entire life for had just ended, he fielded all questions, gave in-depth answers and showed respect to the reporters still on the grounds covering him.
Blake was asked questions about family, race, anti-gay laws, poker, his childhood and some about the match.
For Blake, the statistics will leave him a legacy in tennis, but it will not be a loud one. He had his ups, but every time he came close, barriers stood in Blake's way.
James Blake does not care about that. Sure, he would have liked to have more success, but he is not about to have any regrets.
Blake represents more than a tennis player. He was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and spent his childhood sneaking into the U.S. Open. He played on public courts while suffering from scoliosis as a teen. He was a half-black kid trying to play a rich white boy sport. Blake always had to work a little bit hard than his competition in all areas. He attended Harvard, and he turned pro by 19.
In a big world that can seem daunting, Blake represents the American Dream.
He played his final match on the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, a point that resonated with him.
"Yeah, I thought about that a lot this morning," he said. "Thought it would be a great day to get a win because of how important this day is in our history."
Blake went on to talk about his role in civil rights.
"I don't think we're at the finish line, which I'm proud to be a part of hopefully helping get towards the finish line," he said. "I think it's a good reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary, to let people know that the civil rights movement isn't over. There's also new topics that need to be dealt with. I mean, I did join Athlete Ally because I feel like rights need to be given to those that have a different lifestyle than what some people may consider normal.
Blake talked about how the homophobic laws in Russia are "sad" and is "completely unfair in today's day and age." He talked about going to more Mets, Yankees and Giants games. He talked about seeing Broadway shows. He talked about how he wants to play poker against Yevgeny Kafelnikov. He talked about his daughter, Riley Elizabeth, walking and talking. He talked about spending time with his wife, publicist Emily Snider.
At the end of the day, people do not want to talk to Blake about what he did on the tennis court. Players, fans and media have respect for it, but that is not the story.
Even Blake knows that.
"I was proud of my book. I felt like I related to people on a much more human level," he said. His 2007, autobiography, Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life, debuted at No. 22 on the New York Times bestseller List. "Now I'll go back to being a normal person that doesn't have people cheering for him, just changing diapers and hoping to get 18 holes in on a give day. That's OK with me."
When aspiring tennis players look at Blake, they may see a former top-five player.
They definitely should see a role model as a person. The boy who used to sneak into the U.S. Open grounds is leaving one final time as a separate individual.
"I'm at the same venue, but I'm not the same person," he says. "I've had a lot of miles, a pretty good and long journey since I was a kid sneaking here to a full-grown man leaving here."
That is what life is about for James Blake–growing up, raising a family and respecting others.
"I've had a lot of people that have helped me become that man, and I'm hopefully someone my mom is proud of, my friends and family are proud to call a friend or a brother or a husband."
James Blake was sometimes inches from hitting the shots that would have put him into the top flight of tennis players. He was just a few strokes from leaving his mark in the record books. He was just a few points from paving his path to the Hall of Fame. But those moments also helped him grow as a person.
It is risky and often clumsy when sports is equated with something as important as the struggle for civil rights. But given Blake's personal experience, maybe it is fair to say it's not coincidence he is retiring from professional singles play on the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Maybe it is fitting.
James Blake will not be judged on his tennis skill, but by the content of his character.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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