For James Blake, it’ll be over soon. He plans to put tennis behind him, ride off into whatever awaits, a sunset that he sees. In deciding to leave tennis after the this year's U.S. Open, Blake is creating a gigantic void that, at least on the men’s side, no Black athlete is there to fill.
Even if there were one, he would have tiny footprints to fill. For in Blake, a man would be following a talented athlete whose lone claim to fame was a 2005 Open match against Andre Agassi, a match Blake lost 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
On the way to retirement, Blake did score some minor victories. He won tournaments that no one cared much about. They were wins nonetheless, victories that earned him a nice living.
How much more handsome would that living have been had only Blake developed an all-court game? He didn’t do so, which leaves his career described as a disappointment.
Athletic, charismatic and Harvard-educated, he could have done what Arthur Ashe did nearly four years ago: draw young Black males into the game. Blake, who once ranked No. 4 in the world, could have given them an alternative to their obsessions with football, basketball and hip hop; he could have shown them the value of chasing an elite education; he could have been a lot more than what he ended up being.
Perhaps calling Blake a disappointment is unfair. He handled his career his way, asking nothing from others – not from adoring fans, not from peers and not even from the tennis media, men and women who had saddled him with expectations that might have been too grand.
In retirement, Blake, who turns 34 in December, might settle into a slot as a tennis role model. He could work with the ATP and carry tennis into places it hasn’t been since Ashe’s death. He could do a lot of what Agassi is doing: using tennis to shape lives.
Will Blake do the latter? Who can say? No one should be jotting down the specifics of another person’s life in retirement. Nor should anybody slap unfair and unwarranted demands on someone else.
At least Blake is honest about his decision. His game was long in decline, he said; he knew he would never be a Top 10 player again – not Top 25 even, which makes him fodder for the rising talent in the game, a notch to add to their won-lost card.
To his credit, he’s saying farewell without regrets. He said he would have been greedy to have regrets, and he would have. While sports fans won’t celebrate Blake’s retirement as they do old warriors with better résumés, they can take into account the class he showed.
Classy isn’t a bad way to leave a sport. But it surely would have been more fun to see class married with wins. For Blake it never did, which is a pity for a career that should have been more than what it was.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Bob Leverone/Getty Images)