WHAT HAPPENED: If anyone was going to spoil James Blake’s final appearance at the US Open in the first round, it would be a 6-foot-10 villain with the evil-sounding nickname “Dr. Ivo.” In a sad end to a fine career, Blake surrendered a seemingly commanding two-sets-to-one advantage over Ivo Karlovic and exited his final US Open with a tough loss, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6.
With Blake teetering on the edge of retirement, in the place where he so memorably extended Andre Agassi to a late-night fifth-set tiebreak back in 2005, of course the match had to go to a final set breaker, round about midnight.
A final Karlovic ace, his 38th of the match, sealed the win for the Croat.
The towering Karlovic upped his game just as Blake’s dipped. Karlovic reversed what looked to be an insurmountable lead for Blake and disappointed the hometown crowd, who had hoped to spur Blake on to one last late night bit of magic at the US Open. Blake gave them reason to believe when he broke back to recover from a 4-2 deficit in the final set and send the match to overtime, but that was as much as he could manage.
After lengthy rain delays throughout the afternoon, the twilight hours on Louis Armstrong Stadium Wednesday seemed like a repeat of that old television show “Thirtysomething.” After 33-year-old Venus Williams bowed out in a heartbreaker, Blake, 33, and Karlovic, 34, took the court. The old “Here We Go James, Here We Go!” cries, sounding like the J-Block fan crew of yesteryear, sang out before the first ball.
Befitting Karlovic’s throwback serve-and-volley style, points throughout the match were unusually short, with 127 net approaches between the players. Blake may have been seeking to turn back the clock, but surely that’s not what he had in mind.
WHAT IT MEANS: Blake failed to script a fairytale ending to his career, just two days after announcing that the 2013 US Open — the scene of his finest professional moments — would be his final professional tournament. Still, Blake said he could hold his head high. “Every bit of hard work it took to play in front of you all was worth it,” he said on court after the loss. “I am lucky enough to be able to still think of this as a happy moment.”
Following an unlikely arc from Harlem to Harvard, surmounting illness and accidents, Blake finishes a remarkable career that took him to a high of no. 4 in the world in 2006.
THE QUESTION: What is James Blake’s legacy among American men’s tennis greats?