NEW YORK -- If there's such a thing as benign hazing, it might apply to the U.S. Davis Cup team rituals. Before the competition, the team chooses "practice partners" to join the team. Usually promising junior players, these plebes are there to warm up the big boys and learn as through osmosis; however, they are treated less like honored guests and more like freshmen rushing the fraternity.
Before the U.S. faced Australia in the summer of 1999, the team chose James Blake, a scrawny Harvard undergrad, as a practice partner. Aside from feeding balls and fetching towels, Blake was invited to a team dinner where, for the other players' collective amusement, he was made to speak extemporaneously in front of the audience.
As the story goes, the room quieted, save for some giggles. Blake rose, cleared his throat, collected himself and then spoke movingly and eloquently about what it meant to be part of this team. He talked about history and tennis tradition, and how surreal it all felt to him. The performance would have earned him an "A" in any Harvard speaking course. But when Blake finished, Jim Courier, the team's veteran leader, turned to Blake and deadpanned, "You need to make better eye contact and project more."
Blake would turn pro shortly after that Davis Cup weekend, deferring Harvard after his sophomore year for a chance to be a pro player. And he would project himself just fine. Even as an ATP rookie, he was a voice of reason and intelligence. He resisted the sloppy and premature comparisons to Arthur Ashe, but he had interests and views that went beyond tennis. The tournament stenographers would see him walk into the interview room and roll their eyes, knowing long disquisitions were to follow. It never came across as grandstanding or crusading. Blake was just a guy with self-confidence who figured that if he had a platform to speak, he might as well use it.
Eventually, too, he began to enunciate himself with his tennis results. Blake was never a highly regarded junior player, and he entered Harvard with no tennis ambitions beyond playing against Dartmouth and Brown for four years. Even after turning pro, Blake was a late bloomer, needing all the wild cards he could get for a few years.
But his game matured, and his combination of a weapons-grade forehand coupled with peerless foot speed enabled him to ascend steadily. By 2002, he was winning matches consistently. A year after that, he was among the top 20 players, and then the top 10. By late 2006, the scrawny kid from Connecticut was ranked No. 4 in the world.
It's become cliché to praise athletes as "not taking their success for granted," but that was the case for Blake. He had seen his older brother, Thomas -- more highly regarded as a junior -- never quite make the grade on the ATP Tour. A nasty collision with a net pole that could easily have resulted in paralysis cemented Blake's sense of good fortune. Same goes for the death of his father, along with a diagnosis of shingles, in 2004. What's more, Blake was sufficiently grounded to know that most 25-year-olds don't go from Miami to Rome to Paris, earning large sums of money at each stop. Even talking to his Harvard buddies reinforced Blake's charmed existence; no one pities bankers and lawyers, but their lives couldn't compare to his.
Writing about Blake, I once wondered: Did the same self-possession and happy-to-be-here humility that made him so popular and likable ever cut against his tennis? Did it strip him of a certain urgency? Did it contribute to some of his close losses, in the least his defeat to Andre Agassi in an unforgettable U.S. Open quarterfinal match in 2005? Blake didn't agree and -- in a thoroughly civil way -- let me know as much the next time we spoke.
"I want to win as bad as anyone else," he said. "It's not like it's all gravy for me." Fair enough.
He demonstrated this when his game began to decline. As injuries mounted and age began its assault, Blake had every reason to quit. Here was a player with a safety net large enough to cover Texas. He could return to Harvard, finish his degree, then pick his place of employment. Think of the folks who populate the various suites of Arthur Ashe Stadium -- wouldn't they all want Blake as a colleague?
But he kept grinding, living out of a suitcase, sweating on the practice courts, going through rehab and taking time away from his wife and daughter. Unlikely as his career was, he was going to wring everything he could from it. There were indignities: Nike dropped him as his ranking plummeted, and he no longer played the big courts. It didn't matter.
On Monday, before his first match at the U.S. Open -- the tournament he watched as a kid; site of his biggest Grand Slam success -- Blake announced that this would be his last event. We could explain why, but it seems only right to let the player once chided for his public speaking skills explain it in his own words.
Take us out, James:
"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. For me to think of matches I should have won and to make those as regrets for me has always just seemed greedy.
"I did the best I could in every situation, and I know probably anyone in here that's covered me before has heard me probably annoyingly give the answer often that my goals, when I was playing tennis, instead of ranking-based, were, one, to keep getting better and try to improve every day in practice, and, two, when I'm done playing, put my rackets down and be content with what I did and happy that I did everything the right way.
"That's not saying I didn't make any mistakes. I'm sure I did. I made plenty. But I learned from them and did the best with what I could. That's where I am at today.
"I'm really, really excited I have gotten to do this on my terms. I had knee surgery a couple years ago, and if that had been the end it would have been a little more disappointing to me to end it without going out the way I am now, where still just two weeks ago I beat a guy [who's in the] top 20 in the world.
"I know I have the capability of still playing at that level at times. It's just not with the same consistency I was able to four or five years ago, when I felt like every week was an opportunity to win a tournament. I don't feel like that as much anymore.
"I still love the competition. That's one thing I will miss. I have told a couple select people, couple of the players, Mardy [Fish] and John [Isner] and Sam [Querrey], people I have been through so much with, and Andy [Roddick]. I have told them that one of the things I will miss is their friendship every day in the locker room, getting to hang with them, dinners, all the good times we have.
"The competition is something else I will miss. I will miss pressure-packed moments, break points, set points, match points, the crowd getting into it. But I'm so, so fortunate to have a life after this that I'm looking forward to with my wife, with my family."