By Lindsay Gibbs
There was no fairytale ending, no chapter left to be told. In the last tournament of his career, on sparsely populated Louis Armstrong Court, after the clock had struck midnight, James Blake lost a two-sets-to-love lead over the 34-year-old Croatian Ivo Karlovic in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Blake bravely fought back from a break down in the fifth set to force a fifth-set tiebreaker, but was out-played once he got there. Down match point -- or, career point, if you will -- Karlovic hit an ace. James Blake, with tears in his eyes, challenged.
He was wrong.
And, just like that, it was over. Blake walked to the net. He shook hands with a very respectful Karlovic, and he waved to the crowd. Emotionally, he thanked his family, friends and fans who had stuck around through the rain delays, and, more importantly, since the beginning of his career.
It was almost a fitting, albeit painfully cruel, end to what was a wonderful career. One U.S. Open fifth-set tiebreaker, the one he lost in an electric quarterfinal match on Arthur Ashe Stadium against Andre Agassi in 2005, launched his career and profile to greater heights. This one ended it.
After the final point of his singles career (he's scheduled to play doubles with young American Jack Sock on Thursday), tributes poured out from fans, media and fellow tennis players. The word that everyone used to describe him was one not usually associated with professional athletes: class.
But Blake wasn't perfect, as he will be the first to confess. There were a lot of people who hated the way he played tennis. He had a see-ball, hit-ball, go-for-broke mentality that he stubbornly refused to alter under any circumstances.
Even during his final match, as he stood there trying to return the 6'10" Karlovic's deadly serve, Patrick McEnroe pointed out on ESPN2 that Blake refused to step back from the baseline to give himself a better view of the serve. He was going to go for it all on the return, or he didn't see the point.
There were also a lot of people who had a problem with Blake's demeanor on court. When he was losing, he'd often slouch his shoulders, and look down-right petulant. He'd pick nonsensical arguments with the umpire, and often with himself, and act like the tennis court was the last place he wanted to be.
Even more people hated the J-Block, Blake's branded cheering section that came with their own catchphrases and uniforms. The group, primarily friends from Blake's childhood, meant well, but many loathed when they turned tennis matches into proverbial frat parties.
But despite all of that, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone, on the ATP tour or elsewhere, who disliked James Blake as a person.
"Yeah, I mean, it's not ideal," he told reporters about his final match. "Hopefully this won't be my lasting memory."
Blake's done a lot of work on and off the court to make sure that he's remembered for more than just one loss.
Back in 2008, after making a remarkable comeback from a summer of illness, injury, and loss that would have sent most into a tailspin, he wrote a book about his struggles and survival called Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life.
The book, written with Andrew Freidman, was a remarkably intimate look into the mind of an athlete and a man growing up and dealing with circumstances way out of his control.
In his book, Blake wrote about how his parents, Betty and Tom, raised him to be a man first, a scholar second and an athlete third.
He wrote about how he never dreamed of being a professional tennis player. He was a teenager with scoliosis and just played tennis for fun, his only goal being to join his older brother, Thomas, on the Harvard tennis team. However, after he became the best collegiate player in the country his sophomore year, he decided to turn pro.
He wrote about his struggles the first couple of years on tour, as he tried to adjust mentally and physically to the grind of the tour.
Then, most memorably, he wrote candidly about the toughest period of his life.
In 2004, in a practice set on clay in Rome against fellow American Robby Ginepri, Blake broke his neck when he slid into a net post. He was inches away from being paralyzed. That same summer, his father, who he used to think of as "Superman," passed away from stomach cancer. Then, as a result of the stress, Blake developed shingles, which caused him to stay off of the tour for the rest of that year.
During that down time, he often had doubts about whether he would ever be a professional athlete again. And therefore, as he wrote, he often envisioned the end of his career:
There was, of course, another Plan B, the one in which I imagined myself leaving the life of a professional athlete behind altogether. I thought about the possibility all too frequently, and like any professional athlete, I often visualized how my decision to end my career would play out on SportsCenter. The fact that I had never been on SportsCenter was irrelevant; I had the whole thing shot, edited, and scored in my head. I could hear the dramatic swell of the music and the voice over of the host telling my backstory. I could see myself moving in slow motion across the court as they rehashed old footage of me in my prime. I could see myself sitting in business-casual clothes in the television studio talking about the decision to leave and how satisfied I was with my choice, how I got to see my mom more now, how I still played for fun against my brother. I would smile and they would cut away to clips of me in my new life -- perhaps working for some sort of sports marketing firm. I would beam with convincing satisfaction, flash a huge smile, and the piece would fade to black.
As you know, Blake's career didn't end in 2004. In fact, it was just beginning. He came back to the tour in 2005 and went on to capture nine more career titles --giving him 10 total -- register wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and climb to No. 4 in the world. He won the Davis Cup title with Andy Roddick and the Bryan Brothers in 2007, he made the bronze medal match at the 2008 Olympics and, for a brief period of time, he was the No. 1 American male tennis player.
For someone who was so close to losing it all, it was a remarkable turn of events. But, as is always the case, all good things must come to an end.
The past three years, Blake has floated in and out of the top 100, fighting off retirement rumors with his racket as he gained points in Challengers (the equivalent of the tennis minor-leagues) and accepted wild cards into the bigger events.
There were moments of greatness, but they were followed by heaping doses of reality -- he was simply not a top 10 player anymore.
And so, at 33 years old and ranked No. 100 in the world, he announced at the beginning of this U.S. Open that this was his swan song. The announcement didn't surprise anyone, but it was still an emotional affair.
But he made sure that his final words as a pro were important ones. In his final press conference, a master-class in perspective, he talked about his journey as an African American athlete in a predominately white sport. He revealed how special it was for him to play his last match on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.
He talked about how the fight for equality is far from over, though. Unprovoked, he brought up his work with Athlete Ally, discussed how happy he was for DOMA to be overturned and renounced Russia's homophobic legislation.
He hoped that his presence had inspired some other future tennis players along the way, in the same way that Arthur Ashe inspired him.
"I know there are people that look up to me that may not have ever been involved in tennis, may not have thought of tennis, because they saw someone that looked like them on TV," he said. "They hear that I started playing tennis in Harlem. They know I still go back there and volunteer. Maybe there is a possibility for a kid that feels like their only option is basketball, they say, 'Hey, I can pick up a tennis racquet, too.'"
On the court, Blake's persona might have been too straight-forward and American- jock for everyone's taste. But there was always a lot more to Blake than that.
Off of the court, his words and actions have inspired, unified and helped many along the way to heal. He's worked hard to guarantee that there will never be a fade-to-black on his legacy.