Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blake's singles career ends with loss to Karlovic

James Blake, who won the Sacramento Challenger last year,
fell  Ivo Karlovic in the first round of the U.S. Open after
leading two sets to none. 2012 photo by Paul Bauman
   Other than a seed, Ivo Karlovic was the last guy James Blake wanted to play in his farewell tournament.
   Blake often has felt helpless against the 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) Karlovic's thunderous serve.
   "He's never fun to play," Blake said last year during the Sacramento Challenger, which he won in Karlovic's absence, after losing to the Croat in the 2011 final. "He takes the racket out of your hands. Any guy who can make it all about them and not about you is not fun to play. But he's a good guy ... "       
   Sure enough, Karlovic ended Blake's singles career tonight with an ace. Blake challenged the call, but the video replay showed that Karlovic's serve barely caught the outside line. That gave qualifier Karlovic a 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) victory in the first round of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
   Many fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium stayed until the 3-hour, 24-minute match ended at 12:06 a.m. EDT Thursday as they tried to will Blake, who was born in nearby Yonkers, N.Y., and grew up in Fairfield, Conn., to victory.
   It was reminiscent of Blake's 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) loss to Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Open. Almost all of the 20,000 fans in attendance at Arthur Ashe Stadium stayed until the scintillating match, perhaps the greatest in the tournament's history, ended at 1:09 a.m.    
   Tonight's match also was the first between two men 33 or older since Thomas Johansson of Sweden outlasted fellow 33-year-old Vince Spadea of the United States in five sets in the first round at Wimbledon five years ago. Karlovic is 34 and Blake 33.
   "I don't know when it's going to hit me," Blake, who announced Monday that he would retire after the U.S. Open, said in a post-match interview on the court.  "I don't think I'll be sleeping too much tonight."
   With his eyes reddening and his voice catching, Blake added: "It's hitting me now that I'll never do this again (in singles). I need to appreciate every one of you for being here."
   ESPN analyst and International Tennis Hall of Famer Chris Evert, incisive as always, then put Blake's loss in perspective.
   "The fact that he was up two sets to none and lost is one of the reasons he's retiring," Evert said. "When he needed (the killer instinct), it wasn't there. When that happens, it's time to say goodbye."
   Blake also lost to Karlovic after leading two sets to none in the 2009 Davis Cup quarterfinals on clay in Porec, Croatia.
   This time, Karlovic blasted 36 aces, converted 63 percent of his first serves -- many approaching 140 mph (225 kph) -- and won 84 percent of the points on his first serve. Karlovic, who improved to 7-3 lifetime against Blake, owns the third-fastest serve in history at 156 mph (251 kph).
   Karlovic and Blake are well known in the San Francisco area in addition to Sacramento. Karlovic lost to Andy Murray 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (2) in the 2007 final at San Jose. Blake played in San Jose for 10 years, reaching the singles semifinals in 2003 and 2009 and winning the doubles title in 2004 with friend and countryman Mardy Fish.
   Blake will try to prolong his career on Thursday when he and 20-year-old Jack Sock, the United States' top prospect, meet second-seeded Alexander Peya of Austria and Bruno Soares of Brazil in the first round of men's doubles.
   "He's a great player," Blake said of Sock after beating the just-turned 19-year-old in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Sacramento Challenger. "He has a lot of talent. He would have beaten the pants off me at 19."
   Blake played at Harvard for two years, turned pro in 1999 and reached a career-high No. 4 in 2006. He played in three Grand Slam quarterfinals, including losses to Agassi and Roger Federer in the U.S. Open, and on one Davis Cup championship team (2007).   Blake overcame major physical challenges to reach those heights. He was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at 13 and wore a full-length back brace for 18 hours a day, though not while playing tennis, for five years.
   While practicing at the 2004 Italian Open in Rome, Blake hit his head on a net post as he raced for a drop shot and broke his neck. Had he not turned his head at the last moment, doctors said he could have been paralyzed.
   Instead, Blake missed only two months. But days before he returned to the circuit, his father died of stomach cancer. Blake promptly developed shingles, a viral infection often caused by extreme stress.
   Blake's head swelled, the left side of his face was paralyzed, he became dizzy, and his vision was affected. He came back to the tour six weeks later but played in only two tournaments the rest of the year.
   "I was on the right path, but I got injured," Blake, who was named the ATP Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, said in Sacramento two years ago. "(The bouts of adversity) gave me great perspective on my career and life in general. Spending time with my family and friends gave me peace on the court, knowing that people appreciate me as more than just a tennis player."
   Blake's 2007 book, "Breaking Back: How I lost Everything and Won Back My Life," reached No. 15 on the New York Times' bestseller list. The following year, he was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year for his fundraising efforts on behalf of cancer research.
   Two players with Northern California ties competed in the first round of women's doubles in the U.S. Open today.
   Megan Moulton-Levy, an American who played for the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis last month, and Katalin Marosi of Hungary defeated Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania and Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic 6-3, 7-6 (4).
   Shelby Rogers of Charleston, S.C., and Maria Sanchez, a Modesto product, lost to Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands and Johanna Larsson of Sweden 7-5, 6-4.   

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