NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — His eyes red, James Blake’s voice never wavered as he talked about civil rights and history and diversity.
He embraced the symbolism of starting his last tournament on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, an African-American tennis star inspiring young players. It was just past midnight when his match, and career, ended.
Blake was always comfortable sharing his rousing back story. He was also proud that his game was bigger than that.
He walked off the court at the U.S. Open for the last time as a singles player early Thursday morning after blowing a two-set lead and losing in a fifth-set tiebreaker. The 33-year-old American fell 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) in the first round to Ivo Karlovic.
Afterward, he talked about tennis, but also causes dear to him. Blake has joined Athlete Ally, an organization working to end homophobia in sports. He lamented an athletic culture “where you’re too often seeing a lot of macho sort of showboating when everyone should feel comfortable.”
“Sports is a great equalizer,” Blake said.
He condemned the law prohibiting gay “propaganda” in Russia, which is hosting the Winter Olympics next year.
“I think everyone at this point, when you look at numbers, someone in your circle, whether it’s a family member or a friend, is gay, transgender, or bisexual,” he said. “You should appreciate that those people are valued members of society, people that are doing something good in the world. They should feel comfortable to live their lives. I think any sort of policy that discriminates against them, that excludes them, is completely unfair in today’s day and age. That’s why I say we’re 50 years out and there are still things going on that are discriminatory.”
Blake had announced Monday that this would be his last tournament, ready to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. He couldn’t quite extend his stay another round. Blake will still play doubles.
He rallied from down a break in the final set to force the tiebreaker, but couldn’t overcome the 6-foot-10 Croat’s big serve at the end. Karlovic closed out the victory in 3 hours, 24 minutes with his 38th ace.
“There’s no good way to go out unless you’re holding that trophy,” Blake said.
Blake threw his sweat bands, white shirt and black hat into the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the fans stayed late to try to will him to victory.
“That ovation makes me realize that everything I did, every bit of hard work, was worth it,” he said in an on-court interview, his eyes welling up.
Blake had won 11 straight first-round matches at Flushing Meadows since losing in his debut in 1999. He has been ranked as high as No. 4 in the world in his career and reached three Grand Slam quarterfinals.
“I’m proud that I have the rest of my career to look back on as some pretty good matches, some pretty good wins,” he said. “Hopefully this won’t be my lasting memory, is that loss, up two sets to love, two tiebreakers in the fourth and fifth, losing both of those. Pretty much in my hands at times, and I was the one that I felt like I gave them away.”
Blake ended his career 4-15 in five-set matches.
“I definitely won’t sleep a whole lot tonight,” Blake said. “I’ll be thinking about opportunities I had.”
Karlovic hadn’t been any better — he came in 3-13. His one previous comeback from down two sets? It also was against Blake, at the 2009 Davis Cup.
The 34-year-old Croat has been ranked as high as 14th but had to qualify for this year’s U.S. Open. He will next face ninth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka.
Other players lauded Blake this week for his friendliness and tenacity. His career could have ended nearly a decade ago, but he kept making memories.
In 2004, he slipped on the clay during a practice in Rome and slammed into a net post, which broke vertebrae in his neck. Later that year, his father died from stomach cancer. Then an illness temporarily paralyzed part of his face.
By 2006, he reached his highest ranking. In 2007, he helped the United States beat Russia in the Davis Cup final, the Americans’ first title in 12 years, the country’s longest gap between victories.
Entering this year’s U.S. Open, though, he was ranked 100th. His record is 9-14 this season.
He won 10 singles titles, most recently in 2007. Twice he reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, truly a hometown tournament that seemed to bring out his best play.
Blake was born in Yonkers and went to high school in Connecticut, then attended Harvard before turning pro in 1999.
He lost in the quarters at Flushing Meadows to Andre Agassi in 2005, and to Roger Federer the following year.
The Agassi match was probably his most memorable, and it played out like the final one of his career: He won the first two sets, then lost in the fifth-set tiebreaker.
The avid poker player was asked to describe his career in those terms.
“I got to (No.) 4 in the world, so I had to have some pretty decent cards,” Blake said. “I definitely did the best I could with them. I played them the way I could. I made mistakes. No doubt about it. If you’re a poker player, you’re going to lose pots, but you try to minimize the losses.”
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