Monday, August 26, 2013

Natomas champ Blake to retire after U.S. Open

James Blake poses with Brad Gilbert after winning the $100,000
RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento last October.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   James Blake won't play in the $100,000 Natomas Challenger in Sacramento next month.
   Or anywhere else after the U.S. Open.
   Blake, 33, tearfully announced today that he will retire after the year's last Grand Slam tournament.
   "No real surprise here. This is my last tournament," Blake, one of the sport's true gentlemen, said at a news conference on the first day of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. "I always wanted to end my career at the U.S. Open."
   Blake, who was born in nearby Yonkers, N.Y., and grew up in Fairfield, Conn., has played in the last two Natomas Challenger finals. He lost to 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) Ivo Karlovic of Croatia 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in 2011 and defeated Mischa Zverev, a Moscow native who plays for Germany, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 last year.
   To Blake's chagrin, he is scheduled to play Karlovic, a qualifier, in the first round of the U.S. Open on Tuesday or Wednesday.
   "He's never fun to play," Blake said last year in Sacramento. "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 ... " 
   Karlovic, 34, owns the third-fastest serve in history at 156 mph (251 kph) and is 6-3 lifetime against Blake. They will meet for the first time since the 2011 Natomas final, in which Karlovic fired 23 aces, faced only one break point and won all 20 points on his serve in the last set, including 12 aces.
   Blake is also well-known in the San Francisco area. He played in the San Jose stop on the ATP World Tour for 10 years, reaching the singles semifinals in 2003 and 2009 and winning the doubles title in 2004 with friend and countryman Mardy Fish.
   After playing at Harvard for two years, Blake turned pro in 1999 and reached a career-high No. 4 in 2006. He has played in three Grand Slam quarterfinals, including losses to Andre Agassi and Roger Federer in the U.S. Open, and on one Davis Cup championship team (2007).
   Blake's 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) loss to Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open quarters is considered perhaps the greatest match in the tournament's history. Almost all of the 20,000 fans in attendance stayed until the pulsating match ended at 1:09 a.m.
   The announcement by the 100th-ranked Blake comes a year after his friend and former Davis Cup teammate, Andy Roddick, retired at 30 after the U.S. Open and 12 days after Marion Bartoli, a tremendous ambassador like Blake, left the sport at 28. Next could be Venus Williams and Francesca Schiavone, both 33, and Fish, 31 -- three more gems. Williams and Fish have ongoing health issues.
   Blake also has had serious physical problems.
   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.
   Blake also broke his neck in 2004 while practicing at the Italian Open in Rome. He slipped on a wet clay court while racing to return a drop shot and struck the net post. Had he not turned his head at the last moment, doctors said he could have been paralyzed.
   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. His head swelled, the left side of his face was paralyzed, he became dizzy, and his vision was affected. Blake 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 in 2011. "(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.
   Blake has his own family now. He said today that "despite the tears, I'm actually really happy about this" because he can spend more time with his wife and their 1-year-old daughter. He also expressed an interest in serving as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and working as a television commentator.
   Blake would be outstanding at either one. Or both. 

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