James Blake rested his white baseball hat on the table at the front of the U.S. Open’s main interview room, smiled, and began speaking Monday about his impending retirement from tennis.
The former top-five player was relaxed, composed and matter-of-fact.
"No real surprise here. This is my last tournament," the 33-year-old American said on Day 1 of the year’s last Grand Slam. "I have had 14 pretty darn good years on tour, loved every minute of it, and I definitely couldn’t have asked for a better career."
As Blake continued with his opening statement, discussing why he decided to leave the tour after the U.S. Open, he explained: "There are so many athletes that say they can never replace that feeling of having that adrenaline rush, but I get more of an adrenaline rush now seeing my daughter wake up in the morning. That’s something that I’m truly looking forward to — being able to spend more time with my wife and daughter."
And with that, his voice got caught on the words and his eyes reddened. Blake reached with his left hand to wipe away tears, until someone in the audience tossed him a white towel to dab at his eyes.
"Despite the tears, I’m actually really happy about this," Blake said. "I can do it on my own terms. Always wanted to do that. I thought about it a ton this year."
Blake, who attended Harvard before turning pro in 1999, reached a career-high ranking of No. 4 in 2006. He is currently 100th and has a 9-13 record this season heading into his first-round match in the U.S. Open against Ivo Karlovic.
"I don’t kid myself. I know I have had a great career in my eyes, but it’s not one that’s going to go down in the history books," Blake said. "It’s not one that’s going to end in Newport" — the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame — "but it’s one that I’m proud of."
Blake joined Andy Roddick and twins Bob and Mike Bryan to help the United States beat Russia in the 2007 Davis Cup final in Portland, Ore., giving the Americans their first title in that international competition in 12 years, their country’s longest gap between victories.
"My proudest moment was Portland, without a doubt," Blake said.
He won 10 singles titles, most recently in 2007. At Grand Slam tournaments, he reached the quarterfinals three times, including twice at the U.S. Open, losing at that stage in New York to Andre Agassi in 2005, and to Roger Federer the following year.
That five-set loss to Agassi, Blake said, was his "biggest highlight and lowlight, at the same time."
This tournament always seemed to bring out the best in Blake, who was born in Yonkers and went to high school in Connecticut.
He closed his news conference Monday by describing how he used to sneak under a fence as a kid to get into the U.S. Open without paying. Long a fan favorite at Flushing Meadows, his matches often were accompanied by raucous cheering and chanting from a sizable group of supporters known as the "J-Block."
"Obviously, the U.S. Open was a special place for him. I understand how he would want to end here. You know, I think he still has a lot of great tennis in him, but he’s decided that now is the time for him," said Venus Williams, the 2000-01 U.S. Open champion. "He has a family now, so those are important priorities, from what I hear. He’s ready, so all we can do is support him."
Blake’s announcement came a year after Roddick, his friend and former Davis Cup teammate, decided to make the U.S. Open the final tournament of his career.
"I know Andy’s decision last year was a little different. … We got along great, but he was a little more impetuous at times, and I’m definitely a little more thought-out and it takes me a little longer," Blake said. "It took me a while to come to this decision, so I’m really happy with it and comfortable with it."
He talked about having come close to being forced to end his playing days nearly a decade ago because of two health scares. In May 2004, during a practice session for a tournament in Rome, Blake slipped on the clay court and slammed into a net post, breaking vertebrae in his neck. In August of that year, he got an illness that affected his sight and temporarily paralyzed part of his face.
In between, his father died from stomach cancer. Blake raised millions of dollars for cancer research.
Asked what his plans are for now, Blake said he wants to work on his golf game — and change his 1-year-old’s diapers. Looking "way down the road," as he put it, he would like to be the U.S. Davis Cup captain, and perhaps work as a television commentator.
At this very moment, though, he would like to win a match or two at his final tournament.
"I don’t want to be dragged out of this game. I don’t want someone telling me I need to leave," Blake said. "I want to leave on my own terms. I’m happy doing that right now."