Saying goodbye in 2013: James Blake

The 2013 season saw the end of the road for several prominent ATP players. The Grandstand bids its first farewell to James Blake.

James Blake was more than just one of the fastest players with one of the most ferocious forehands during his time on the ATP World Tour. He was one of tennis’ good guys. Blake, who played collegiately at Harvard, overcame scoliosis, a broken neck, and the death of his father to muster up an improbably successful professional career. He also wrote a book, “Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won My Life Back,” chronicling his life on and off the court.

A look back at Blake’s career:

Career-high ranking: 4
ATP titles: 10
Doubles titles: 7
Davis Cup titles: 1
Masters finals (year-end championship included): 3

Biggest win: 2005 U.S. Open third round – beat Rafael Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1

It’s hard to remember or even believe that Nadal snagged a set in this match given just how much of a comprehensive beatdown it really was. Blake needed only two hours and 25 minutes to see off the No. 2 player in the world while firing 53 winners—almost double his unforced-error count of 27. He saved eight of 10 break points and converted six of his seven break opportunities. After getting broken to end the second set, Blake woke back up and played like a man possessed. He dropped only four games in the final two frames of play and won an incredible 16 of the match’s last 17 points. The monumental win became even bigger over the coming days as Blake parlayed it into a fourth-round scalp of Tommy Robredo followed by an instant classic against Andre Agassi.

Most heartbreaking loss: 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinals – lost to Andre Agassi 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(6)

“If someone had told me a year ago that I’d have to go out and lose 0, 0, and 0 in the quarterfinals of the Open to Andre Agassi, I’d take it in a heartbeat.”

That’s what Blake said after beating Nadal and moving within one round of facing Agassi. The matchup happened, but it certainly did not result in a triple-bagel. Far from it. Instead, Agassi-Blake turned into the match of the tournament and arguably the match of the year. Playing in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal (he eventually appeared in three and never reached a semifinal), Blake had a golden chance to upset the No. 7 player in the world and advance to the last four (where he likely would have been favored against Robby Ginepri). He led two sets to love and also served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth. The 35-year-old Agassi, however, forced a decisive tiebreaker and converted his second match point at 7-6 by running around for a forehand off a second serve and crushing it for a winner. Speaking to the crowd past 1:00 in the morning, Agassi declared, “I wasn’t the winner, tennis was.”

Last match: U.S. Open first round – lost to Ivo Karlovic 6-7(2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), 7-6(2)

An improbable run to the second week of the U.S. Open would have been an appropriate end to Blake’s career. Unfortunately, what transpired at the other end of the highlight-lowlight spectrum was a similarly fitting conclusion. Blake lost the first nine five-set matches of his career before beating Fabrice Santoro at the 2007 U.S. Open and he finished with an improved but still horrendous 4-15 mark in five-setters. Six times he squandered two-set leads, each of the last two coming against Karlovic. After losing to the 6’10’’ Croat 6-7(5), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 7-5 in a 2009 Davis Cup quarterfinal rubber, Blake suffered a similar fate in the opening match of his final tournament. The 33-year-old won 26 return points and broke Karlovic three times in the first two sets, but he earned only one break over the last three sets and was no match for his opponent’s booming serve in the fourth-set and fifth-set tiebreakers.

Comments, disagreements, and your own personal Blake reflections are encouraged!

Comments

  1. Good luck to a lovely bloke!

  2. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing him doing commentary either on the Tennis Channel or ESPN.

  3. A win against Nadal is a career win for anyone!

    Good Luck in your retirement, James.

  4. I think if you were to ask Blake he would cite losing to Gonzales after blowing three match points at the Beijing Olympics as his most heartbreaking loss.

    • Totally agree, ed. I wonder if he ever spoke to Gonzalez again. Mind you, I’m pleased that Rafa played Gonzo in the final because JB always gave Rafa hassle and I’m glad Rafa ended up with the Gold Medal. James would have at least got the silver.

  5. nativenewyorker7 says:

    I always found Blake’s story inspiring. He has overcome so much at a young age. I also admire his positive attitude.

    If I recall, wasn’t that match at the Beijing Olympics the one in which Gonzales was caught lying about not touching the ball or something? I remember a lot of controversy in that match.

    I do hope that Blake will consider doing some broadcasting and tennis analysis now that he has retired. I think he did do some guest commentary, but I don’t remember which channel and when.

    I remember when he was in the top five. I always enjoyed watching him. A class act.

  6. His triumph over adversity is an inspiration to all young people. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

    I have two nephews with severe scoliosis so I have some understanding of what he went through in his teen years. To become an elite tennis player in spite of that was an extraordinary achievement in itself.

    NNY: Yes, that was the match I was referring to.

  7. It was so much fun to watch Blake over these past 15 years or so. I saw him win the NCAA singles in Athens (and the doubles w/his brother), and I was at that amazing Nadal match that Rick mentioned above. He was truly “en fuego”!

  8. His forehand was HUGE. He was an entertaining player! good luck for your future James..

  9. Ricky Dimon says:

    ed25 – good call. for me that it is a close second. I think it was his most “controversial” and probably most “infuriating” loss, but I think the one to Agassi was the most “heartbreaking” and one whose outcome had a bigger impact on the remainder or his career.

  10. Ricky Dimon says:

    NNY – yes. Blake blasted a shot that was going well long, but Gonzalez–who was at the net–had it clip his racket. I mean it BARELY clipped it, but I still think he probably knew it did. I forget what point it happened at but it was a HUGE moment in the match. Will go back and watch highlights to find out.

  11. My favourite memory was Blake beating fedfan at the 2008 Olympics. hahahahaha

    Comeback James!!!!!!

    God, it’s KILLING Me!!!!!!

  12. vamosrafa says:

    @hawkeye, LOL

    Well, between 2005-2008 ,blake was the name I used to frantically look for whenever draws were uploaded… he used to scare me ! I always wanted rafa to avoid him on hard courts… finally rafa solved the puzzle in 2008 IW thanks to some adjustments in his game..

  13. vamosrafa says:

    just read the article now…. the opening paragraph is very well written ! thumbs up.. blake has been given the respect he deserves

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