There were many times James Blake’s future in tennis were uncertain, even at times seemingly unlikely he would live a normal life, let alone be a successful professional athlete.
From severe scoliosis that required him to wear a back brace 18 hours a day as a young teenager, to a broken neck and facial paralysis as an adult to knee injuries and the personal hardship of his father’s early death from cancer, Blake has had much to overcome. But he came through it all, climbing as high as No. 1 in the collegiate ranks and No. 4 in the world as a professional, becoming a Davis Cup champion and establishing himself as one of the game’s nicest people and great humanitarians.
Now, 14 years after his first professional match and about to begin his 13th US Open, Blake is calling it a (wonderful) career. He officially announced his retirement from professional tennis Monday, effective at the conclusion of the 2013 US Open. Currently ranked No. 100, he plays his opening match against Ivo Karlovic.
"I have had 14 pretty darn good years on tour, loved every minute of it, and I definitely couldn't have asked for a better career," a teary-eyed Blake said of his full time on the ATP Tour. "For me to think of matches I should have won and to make those as regrets for me has always just seemed greedy. I did the best I could in every situation."
"I'm really, really excited I have gotten to do this on my terms" he added. "As far as my decision, I'd say it was becoming clearer and clearer throughout most of this year. Little things throughout the year made it more clear and more obvious that this was the right time for me. I always wanted to end my career at the US Open."
Flushing Meadows is a fitting finale for the hometown hero, who was born in nearby Yonkers, N.Y., grew up in Fairfield, Conn., and started playing tennis with his older brother Thomas in the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program in Upper Manhattan, being inspired to play the game when the great Arthur Ashe spoke there.
He has been a fan favorite at the US Open for years, with his famous "J-Block" of fans always there to cheer him on. Moreover, Blake has played many of his most memorable matches in Flushing Meadows, where he twice reached the quarterfinals, in 2005 and 2006. Few fans could forget him beating Rafael Nadal in the fourth round and then his fifth-set tiebreak loss in nearly three hours to 35-year-old Andre Agassi in the 2005 quarterfinals under the lights, an instant classic that Blake described at the time by saying, “It couldn’t have been more fun to lose.”
The US Open was Blake’s most successful Grand Slam, but he also reached the quarterfinals of the 2008 Australian Open and four times reached the fourth round in Melbourne.
Known for his power, speed and his amazing forehand, Blake won 10 singles and seven doubles titles on the ATP World Tour, as well as the 2007 Davis Cup title with the U.S., a team of which he was a stalwart member for many years, along with Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan. He called winning the Davis Cup title in Portland, Oregon with Roddick, the Bryans and under then-Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe, the proudest moment of his career.
Before turning professional, he played two seasons at Harvard University (1998-99) and was the No. 1-ranked NCAA player, advancing to the 1999 NCAA singles final. He began working his way up the ATP rankings the next few seasons, cracking the Top 25 in 2003 for the first time.
His rise up the rankings, however, was curtailed in 2004. During a practice session in May 2004 in Rome with fellow American Robby Ginepri, Blake had a fluke accident, slipping on the clay and colliding with the net post, which resulted in broken vertebrae in his neck that kept him off the tour until July. Shortly after returning to action, he came down with Zoster, a medical condition that affected his vision and hearing and caused him to suffer temporary paralysis on one side of his face. The same month he lost his father, Thomas Blake, after a battle with stomach cancer. He chronicled his struggles and journey back in his New York Times best-selling book, "Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life."
"That time being part of the biggest tragedies of my life to this point also clued me in to how lucky I am right now to be doing this on my terms, because my career could have ended twice in 2004," he said on Monday. "I was millimeters from breaking my neck in the way that would have left me paralyzed for the rest of my life. When that happened and I was able to get back in a few months, I knew how lucky I was. Unfortunately, it was also the time my father passed away, and that had an effect on me physically with shingles. If I hadn't gotten to the ER immediately for treatment they said my facial nerve could have died. If that's the case, I never would have played."
Since his father’s death, Blake has been dedicated to raising money for cancer research, establishing the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund to support research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York and holding annual charity events for years that have raised more than $3 million.
Blake had his best career season in 2006, when he won five titles, tied for the second-most on the ATP Tour behind Roger Federer. That same year he broke into the Top 10 for the first time, becoming the first African-American man to crack the Top 10 since the legendary Ashe and reaching his career-high ranking of No. 4.
Age and knee injuries slowed Blake in recent years, with a knee injury costing him significant time in 2010, when he finished the year ranked outside the Top 100 for the first time. But Blake came back to the game he loved, working his way back into the game playing Challengers. He competed on the ATP Tour for most of 2012 and 2013, during which time he got married, to Emily Snider, and had his first child, a daughter Riley.
And now, after 15 years of memories, Blake has decided this was the perfect time to say goodbye.
"I still love the competition. I have told a couple select people, Mardy (Fish), John (Isner), Sam (Querrey), people I have been through so much with, and Andy (Roddick), one of the things I will miss is their friendship every day in the locker room," he said. "But I'm so, so fortunate to have a life after this that I'm looking forward to with my wife, with my family. This has been more than I ever could have expected out here."