Today, one of the nicest guys in tennis, James Blake, announced that the 2013 U.S. Open is the last tournament of his career.
No athlete's career can last forever, and that's especially true for tennis players. They're lucky if they get 10 good years out of their bodies, and they're even luckier if any of those years are memorable to anyone outside of their closest friends and family.
The luckiest get to play a full career, and then call things off on their own terms. That's the situation Blake found himself in today, as he was able to announce the end of his 14-year career during a press conference at his favorite tournament in the world.
These days, Blake has other things that are keeping him going (via Bloomberg) :
'There’s so many athletes that say they can never replace that feeling of having an adrenaline rush, but I get more of an adrenaline rush these days seeing my daughter wake up in the morning,' Blake said, trying not to cry. 'Despite the tears, I’m actually really happy about this.'
Blake reached No. 4 in the world. He won 10 singles titles and seven doubles titles, had career wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and U.S. Open (twice).
But no matter his accomplishments on the court, which 99% of tennis players could only dream of, Blake will be most remembered for how he carried himself off the court.
Primarily, he'll be remembered for his comeback. You know, the one that got him onto Oprah's couch and that led him to write his best-selling book, "Breaking Back."
If you're unfamiliar, in May, 2004, while practicing on a clay court in Rome with Robby Ginepri, Blake slipped and collided head-first into a net post, breaking his neck in the process. Later that summer, his father died of stomach cancer. Around that same time, Blake developed shingles, which temporarily paralyzed half of his face.
Lesser men would have quit then, and it would have been perfectly understandable. But not Blake. He kept trucking ahead, and he went on to forge a career that his father would have been proud of.
In the summer of 2005, just one year removed from the tragedy, he made the final of Washington, D.C., won the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven and made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, where he lost to Andre Agassi in a classic match in the fifth-set tiebreaker on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In 2006, he briefly became the No. 1 American after he made the final of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. In 2007, on a team with future Hall-of-Famers Andy Roddick and the Bryan Brothers, Blake helped clinch the Davis Cup title for the United States.
Blake was a huge part of the Roddick Generation of American tennis. Part of the legacy that generation passes onto the one behind it is one of friendship first, competition second. First and foremost Blake, Roddick, Mardy Fish and their contemporaries were friends. They went to dinners together, they cheered each other on and they relished their time on the Davis Cup team.
This doesn't mean they didn't want to take each other down when they faced off on court—of course they did. But there was a camaraderie among them that didn't exist in prior generations. Blake, with his humility and kindness, set the tone.
Blake was also very passionate about his charity work. In honor of his father, he started the James Blake Foundation, which is dedicated to cancer research and finding a cure.
This year, Blake also became a member and advocate for Athlete Ally, an organization that fights homophobia in sports. When talking about his involvement in the cause, he said that one of his only regrets was that he didn't have a bigger profile, and he couldn't make more of a change:
Honestly, I don’t have regrets in my career. But one regret I do have is that I wish I had more of a voice. I wish I had the titles of Andy [Roddick] or the fame and notoriety of someone more out there in the scene so I could have more of a voice. You know, I can’t worry too much about that. All I can do is use the voice that I have gotten with the wins I've gotten and with the position that I'm at in life.
Blake has been struggling the last few years, but one thing that never changed was his determination. He didn't want to be kicked out of the game because of an injury or because his ranking dropped too low to get into any tournaments.
He's at the U.S. Open on the strength of his own ranking, and, at 33 years old, he gets to walk off the court for the last time on his own two feet.
He plays 34-year-old qualifier Ivo Karlovic in the first round on Wednesday, one of the few players in the draw that is older than he is. No matter the result of that match, Blake can hang his head high as he moves on to his new career as a full-time husband and father.
He leaves behind a legacy of friendship, class, perseverance and heart. Oh, and he was pretty great at tennis too.
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