I bought so many headbands in the fall of 2005. Not the 90s fashionable kind for women, mind you, the athletic kind. I bought a black headband and a Carolina blue headband with the white Nike swoosh, a red headband with the black Jordan jump-man logo and, knowing my taste in tropical colors, probably something neon yellow.
I bought all of these headbands because of James Blake. He had become my favorite athlete.
I had just recently gotten into tennis. That summer a few of my high school friends and I would spend one day each week at my friend Caroline’s house in Loch Lloyd, a haven for tennis and swimming, so long as the pool wasn’t being patrolled by Cass County police officers. Those days were the best. My forehand and backhand and serve were not. One day in the searing Missouri heat, I slammed my racket onto the hardcourt after a particularly awful run of shots, and my plastic frame melded into the concrete, leaving me with a racket head transformed into the shape of “D.” That’s how I played tennis back then.
Fortunately, I started to watch much higher quality tennis. I’d been a casual fan before then, enough to know about the former greats like Sampras and McEnroe, the current alpha-male Roger Federer, the young up-and-comer Rafael Nadal, and Marat Safin, the head-case to end all head-cases. A couple years earlier, I’d also watched a random match in which some guy with Marley-length dreads wrapped up in a headband was hitting the ball at impossibly fast speeds, even for a professional tennis player. The announcers said he had attended Harvard. He was James Blake.
I hardly saw him play for a couple of years after that. Then at the 2005 US Open he was back. The dreads were gone, his head now completely shaved, but he still wore the headband. He won his first round match and then in the third round, he dominated Nadal. Hailing from just outside of New York, in Connecticut, he was a fan favorite, awarded night matches in Louie Armstrong Stadium or even Arthur Ashe Stadium. In those friendly confines, a group of rowdy friends cheered him on from the cheap seats, wearing J-Block t-shirts. He lost a five-setter to Andre Agassi in which he held match point in the quarterfinals, but his rise was imminent, the media going as far as comparing him to Ashe, America’s last great black tennis player. And I was hooked. I scoured EBay hoping to find a J-Block t-shirt for sale. I switched my Facebook avatar to a photo of Blake. I hung up a few photos of him on the wall of my bedroom back home. I did find a t-shirt of Blake at Dick’s Sporting Goods – it featured his face in grayscale, watermarked behind an American flag.
It was a strange time for me to start loving a new sport and a new athlete. My interest in most other sports was waning. I hadn’t reached the full-scale of lameness at which I operate now, poring over the New York Times business section every day and writing meandering blog posts in my spare time, but a surge of school/work-related obligations prevented me from enjoying my favorite sports. In all of college, I’d estimate I watched fewer than 10 Chiefs games because most Sundays I was at the library, probably committing to memory some random piece of Roman History (bet you didn’t know Marius was a mentor to Sulla!). As for Kansas basketball, I still cared, still cared a lot, but for health reasons and to meet minimal criteria of United States social norms I didn’t follow Kansas basketball in the panicky way I used to. In middle school, I’d storm up to my room after losses and lie on the floor until the desire to break something subsided. When they were losing at half, sometimes I’d quit watching the game, praying they could return to their winning ways in my absence. So for those reasons I had begun distancing myself emotionally from the teams of my youth, and then, Christ, the Royals were the Royals.
In Blake, I discovered a resurgence in my fanhood. He played tennis the way I tried (and failed) to play: Blake went for the winners. Too often, his forehands would spray wide of their target, but he kept gunning for it anyway, always reloading his cannon arm for another shot, always believing the ball would land between the white lines.
Even better was his personality. Blake was never supposed to be a top player in his youth. He was supposed to go to Harvard, be a pretty good college player and then move on to the business world or law school. Instead he blossomed into a prospect, turning pro in 1999 and working his way into a full-time spot on the main tour by 2002. That year he came within a set of upsetting No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt at the US Open and won his first tour-level title. Then everything nearly fell apart. There was a reason why I didn’t see him play for so long: In 2004, he stumbled on a dampened practice court in Rome and collided with the net post, breaking his neck. His father died from cancer shortly thereafter. Then he contracted shingles, leaving him bed-ridden for weeks.
Retold in quick fashion, it’s easy to discount his recovery. As Blake detailed in his autobiography, he nearly quit after these setbacks. He had to force himself to get out of bed and to stop pitying himself. For his tennis, for this attitude, I admired Blake. Plus, he seemed like a great guy. The American stars at this time were Blake, Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and the Bryan brothers. I remember reading stories about how they lived like frat brothers on the road.
For a while, Blake was the very best of this group. The 2005 U.S. Open launched him into the upper echelon of tennis. In 2006, he advanced to the quarterfinals of the Open again. He ended up winning 10 career tournaments. By the end of 2006, he was ranked No. 4 in the world. In 2007, he helped the U.S. win the Davis Cup.
Two very specific kryptonites, five-set matches and Federer, prevented him from rising to the absolute top tier. As I remember, he didn’t win his first five-set match until 2006 when he beat Fabrice Santoro in the second round of the Open. He also seemed to get placed in Federer’s quarter in every major tournament, a surefire recipe for a loss – until 2008. In the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympics, Blake shocked Federer in two sets. After losing to Fernando Gonzalez on a bullshit call and then falling to Novak Djokovic in straight sets, he didn’t medal, but I still wore my Blake shirt with pride for a couple days.
That was Blake’s peak. He was getting a little older and bowing out in the first or second rounds of the Grand Slams. Nike, in fact, dropped him as a sponsor, and he switched to Fila, a really odd logo to see worn on a tennis court.
When I studied abroad in Rome, I went to the Italian Open, hoping to see him play, but he lost to some guy named Victor Crivoi the day before I had my tickets. Disappointing results like that seemed to frequently happen to Blake starting about that time, in 2009. He kind of disappeared. He still played, but he wasn’t even a lock for the main draw of the big tournaments, needing to qualify.
I hardly thought about Blake in the past couple of years except for when I’d come home and see the magazine and newspaper photos of him I had pasted on my wall. On Monday, the news broke that he was retiring at the age of 33. This U.S. Open would be his last.
Wednesday night, he played his first round match, against Ivo Karlovic. I watched on my computer. For those not familiar with Karlovic, imagine Frankenstein, if Frankenstein knew how to serve. And I don’t mean that as an insult. Karlovic is a hulking, towering monster of a tennis player with limbs so stiff they could hang from a tree. When his serve is on, he is nearly impossible to break. His play is gorgeous in its extreme ugliness. In the first set, Blake, sponsored by some company with an “M” now, won on a tiebreaker and he actually did break Karlovic in the second set, taking a 2-0 lead after about an hour of play. The crowd was chanting, “Here we go Jaaa-aaames, here we go.” Yes! It looked like his tournament would last for at least another day.
But Karlovic morphed into green-skinned, dead-bolts-in-his-head Karlovic, and Blake displayed a few of the nerves that cost him some matches in his prime. He double-faulted twice in a game that he lost, and Karlovic won the set. In the fourth, Blake served brilliantly and then fell apart in the tiebreak, losing 7-2. The match was tied 2-2. I decided to the only thing an irrational fan could do…
I muttered a profanity, flipped down my computer screen and stopped watching, hoping my favorite superstition could work one final time.
This morning, I checked for the result on my phone. A loss, a loss in a tiebreak in the fifth set. James Blake’s career has officially ended. I’m sure he’s disappointed but at his retirement press conference he expressed his excitement at moving on and spending more time with his wife and daughter. He has a life to live.
In a strange way, as a fan, I’m almost glad it ended like this, ended in heartbreak. I find that when you follow a team or an athlete closely you learn to cherish the close losses as much as the wins because of the emotion you experience with either result. You’ll always return to watch and always know that regardless of what happens, win or lose, you’re still certain that next time you go home you’ll search frantically in hope that some of those headbands are still tucked away in your closet.