A Fitting Farewell for James Blake in Flushing

The American tennis player made a name for himself at the U.S. Open, but never found sustained success on the court. There's good reason to believe he might have better luck off it.

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

James Blake of the U.S. waves to the crowd after losing to Ivo Karlovic of Croatia at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York Aug. 28, 2013

James Blake just never quite happened. For a while, mostly in 2005 and 2006, it really seemed like he would. American tennis fans certainly wanted it and the signs were there: the back-to-back quarterfinal appearances at the U.S. Open, a stint as the 4th-ranked player in the world, the hopes that Blake and Andy Roddick might become the next generation’s Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. But Blake wasn’t Sampras or Agassi, or even Roddick. He didn’t save American tennis, or even do much to stem its decline. James Blake was simply a very good tennis player from whom greatness was expected, but never attained.

In spite of the fact that he has reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam just once since his lone quarterfinals appearance at the Australian Open in 2008, Blake made headlines when he announced earlier this week that the 2013 U.S. Open would be his final tournament. It’s a fitting place for him to end his career. He’s a local product (born in nearby Yonkers, raised in Connecticut) and enjoyed far more success in Flushing throughout his career than at Roland Garros and the All-England Club (he never advanced beyond the third round at the French Open or Wimbledon).

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But Blake’s connection to the U.S. Open was always stronger than the results he attained. It was more than the “unusual combination of H’s — Harvard, Harlem […], handsome and humble” that the New York Times magazine described in 2005. There was something intrinsically American about Blake’s tennis journey. He began his career as something of a phenom, climbing from 273rd in the ATP rankings to 25th in less than two years. At the time, he was overshadowed by Roddick, but crowds gravitated toward Blake in a way that they didn’t for Roddick, whose unusual blend of wit and sarcasm often rubbed tennis fans the wrong way. In consecutive U.S. Opens in 2001 and 2002, Blake put on epic five-set classics with former champion and perennial Flushing villain Lleyton Hewitt (a role that was re-established during their 2001 encounter when Hewitt all but accused a linesman of calling a foot fault on him because the linesman, like Blake, was black). Blake didn’t have Roddick’s serve, Agassi’s return or Sampras’ serve-and-volley game, but he did have a booming forehand, the ability to put a racket on practically every ball that crossed to his side of the net and an impressive siege mentality that belied his youth.

Then came the injury. During a practice session in May 2004, Blake tripped while chasing a drop shot on damp red clay and catapulted headfirst into a metal net post. The collision broke his neck and sidelined him for sixth months. By April 2005, he had dropped to 210th in the rankings. But if there’s one thing American crowds like more than a rising star’s ascension, it’s a rising star’s comeback. And it just so happened that Blake completed his comeback that year on the very same courts that had turned him from from an unknown to America’s next tennis hope. He won his first two matches in straight sets against Top-60 opponents, then dispatched a young Spaniard named Rafael Nadal (fresh off his first French Open title) in the third round. A fourth round victory set up a showdown with Agassi.

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All throughout that tournament, the sense that this was Blake’s year to take “the next step” had been growing. It wasn’t just his impressive victories or the way he’d bounced back from such a devastating injury. There was an excitement in and around Ashe Stadium that was even more vibrant than what had been present during Roddick’s 2003 title run. It was a “one of us” sort of vibe. Blake’s cheering section, the “J-Block,” made up of  50 of Blake’s closest friends and his girlfriend, played a big part in cementing his cult status. With each successive win, the crowds grew larger and the cheers grew louder. It was almost as if fans believed that if they cheered hard enough, they could make up for whatever Blake lacked. And for a while, it was almost as if they were right.

Agassi had long been a fan favorite at the U.S. Open, but on the night he faced Blake, it was clear that many fans had switched their allegiances. Agassi was an American great, yes, but he was the past. He had won his two U.S. Open championships. This was Blake’s time. As fitting a time and place for a passing-of-the-torch as any tennis fan could ever hope for. Except that it wasn’t. Even at 35—a true dinosaur by tennis definitions—Agassi was better than Blake would ever be. Their five-set match that ended in a fifth set tie-breaker is still considered one of the great matches in U.S. Open history. Though an unquestionable triumph for Agassi, the loss was a bitter one for Blake. With Federer and Nadal on the rise, Blake’s defeat made it regretfully clear that he had become all that he was going to become.

The next year, Blake once again blazed a path to the quarterfinals in Flushing. This time, however, his opponent was Roger Federer, who was at the height of his dominance. Though Blake was ranked seventh at the time and the J-Block was back once again, expectations were muted. If Blake couldn’t beat an aging Andre Agassi after dismantling Nadal, what chance would he have against one of tennis’ all-time greats in his prime? A hard-fought four-set loss validated those concerns. Blake would reach just one more Grand Slam quarterfinal in his career (the 2008 Aussie Open) and became a source of perennial disappointment for American tennis fans. He was good enough, winning 10 ATP titles and reaching No. 4 in the rankings, to inspire fans to expect more, but not great enough to fulfill any of those expectations.

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In many respects, Blake was the victim of circumstance. He arrived on the scene along with Roddick and in the wake of Sampras and Agassi. At that time, American greatness in tennis nothing if not expected. A decade ago, it was entirely unthinkable that there would be even a single week without an American man ranked in the Top 20, but that’s exactly what happened earlier this month (for the first time in the 40-year history of the rankings). Blake was supposed to conquer the tennis world the way his predecessors had. But his predecessors never had to face Federer or Nadal. Maybe in another era, Blake could have found his way to one U.S. Open championship, but against Federer? Not a chance. And those four H’s didn’t help matters. Blake was  provided with every possible narrative: young up-and-comer attempting to supplant the aging greats, injured star aiming at an improbable comeback, savvy veteran looking for one last shot at glory. But none fit. Improbably,  such an impressive young man was not the protagonist of his own story—at least on the court.

Even if Blake’s first-round loss to Ivan Karlovic last night was a fitting end to a career seemingly defined by unfulfilled opportunities (Blake led two sets to love before dropping the next two and ultimately succumbing in a fifth set tiebreak), what transpired at the match’s conclusion somehow seemed more important. Late in the deciding set, the few fans that still remained in Louis Armstrong Stadium after the clock struck midnight cheered Blake with such fervor that for a moment, it almost felt like 2005 again. This time—as then—they couldn’t will him to victory. But the bond between U.S. Open fans and Blake was undeniable. After the match, he thanked those who had stuck around to the bitter end, as well as his downsized, but no less adoring, J-Block. It’s become commonplace for tennis players to thank their “team” at the conclusion of matches, but Blake’s remarks were far more than cursory. To anyone watching—whether in person or on television—it was readily apparent that his remarks were thoroughly heartfelt. In that moment, the reasons for his appeal and popularity were apparent. And for one final night, the Harvard, Harlem, handsome and humble Blake was the King of Flushing. Those four H’s may not have helped make James Blake happen on the court, but there’s a good bet they’ll ensure that, one way or the other, James Blake happens off it.

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