James Blake is here to stay

NEW YORK -- Snafu is a dark, narrow bar just off Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan, the kind of eclectic joint where you can still get a couple of decent drafts and a bowl of popcorn for less than 10 bucks and watch European soccer. For the two weeks of the U.S. Open, though, Snafu becomes a tennis-centric venue. The ATP brain-trust swept through Sunday night on their way to a reunion dinner.

A few years ago, when James Blake was at the height of his powers, he walked in one night with his brother, Thomas. Sometime later, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter joined them. Everyone in the bar knew who they were, yet left them undisturbed, quietly chatting over a beer.

It was an almost poignant, rock-star moment, a meeting of peers at the top of their respective games.

Six years later, on Monday at the U.S. Open, Blake found himself playing an eye-opening first-on match -- for the first time here -- against Lukas Lacko of Slovakia.

It was hard not to see the symmetry: Blake first played in the main draw here 13 years ago as a 19-year-old with a low ranking but the potential that induced the USTA to furnish him with a wild card. This year, ranked at No. 114, Blake -- who turns 33 in December -- needed a second USTA wild card to make the 128-man field.

The parabolic arc of a fine, stylish career. The inevitable fall to earth. Yes, this is the awkward time in an athlete's life when people are in a hurry to push them into retirement. For Blake, along with fellow Americans Andy Roddick (an early phenom) and Mardy Fish (a late bloomer), that time is now.

In April, James, in the wake of a debilitating knee injury, seriously considered leaving tennis, according to his brother. After practicing in the humid heat at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Fla., they would talk earnestly about the reality of his relevance in the game.

"It was very tough to listen to," Thomas said, sitting on a bench in the outdoor players' lounge two hours before James' match. "I know he came really close. Really close."

James Blake confirmed this after his match in an exclusive interview with ESPN.com.

"Without my legs, I'm a below-average player," he said. "To be honest, I was worried that my knee wasn't coming around. I was going to give it this summer. I was thinking that might be it."

The good news? James Blake says he isn't going anywhere.

The brand-new father (his daughter's name is Riley Elizabeth) has already made plans to play an engaging fall schedule -- including a Challenger or two -- sandwiched around a California wedding to Emily Snyder in November. He's intent on getting his ranking high enough to qualify for the main draw at next year's Australian Open.

After losing his first six ATP matches this year, over a frustrating 0-for-seven-month period, there are signs that Blake's surgically repaired right knee and, perhaps more importantly, his psyche are in a good place.

Thirteen years after losing to Chris Woodruff in the first round here, Blake defeated Lacko 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. The match, interrupted by rain, was his first Grand Slam singles victory of the year.

For many, the result came as a surprise, for Lacko on paper had the advantage of age (he's eight years younger) and more recent success.

Still, Lacko has yet to win a U.S. Open match in three tries and has won only seven of 21 career matches in majors; Blake is now 24-11, including two terrific runs to the quarterfinals here in 2005 and '06.

In retrospect, this wasn't an upset of great magnitude. Blake grew up in nearby Yonkers and played a lot of junior matches at the USTA National Tennis Center. Hard courts -- all 10 of his titles have come on glorified asphalt -- are a haven for his flat and furious forehand, the exquisite timing of his take-the-ball-early anticipation. He has many friends here and the U.S. Open has always brought out his best.

His five-set loss to Andre Agassi (in a tiebreaker) was a scintillating match and a year later he pushed Roger Federer to four sets at the same stage. You can't help but wonder what might have happened if Blake had won that match against Agassi. Could he have found the confidence to make his flashy game more than the sum of its parts?

Hey, don't feel sorry for James Blake.

He was once ranked No. 4 in the world and has made more than $7million in prize money since turning pro -- and probably two or three times that off the court, with high-end sponsors Nike, Prince, Fila happy to outfit him. There were high-end fashion shoots, prompting players to call him "The GQ Guy." Now, in his next reinvention, like golfer Bubba Watson, he's wearing Travis Mathew gear.

Certainly, the handsome athlete who played two years at Harvard will be a natural choice as a television analyst, but apparently that will have to wait another year or two or three.

For the past several years, it didn't seem possible.

Two years ago in Miami, Blake won the first set against Thomaz Bellucci, then felt a sharp pain in his right knee. He won just three games in the last two sets. He saw myriad specialists, who told him he had torn a tendon in his patella but that continued play wouldn't make it worse. So Blake hired a full-time trainer and kept playing.

Last year, though he raised his year-end ranking to No. 59, it did get worse. He finally had surgery in November and doctors told him it would take three months to heal.

"Being the athlete he was and the success he'd had," Thomas said, "he was kind of thinking that he'd be himself in three months. It was three months before he was healed enough to play, and then he needed to get stronger, fit.

"The early results weren't good and he really struggled with that."

Why didn't James walk away?

"I think," Thomas said, "he realized how much he loved the game."

The recent returns have been encouraging. Blake reached the quarterfinals in Washington, D.C., losing to eventual champion Alexandr Dogopolov, and beat No. 34-ranked Kevin Anderson in Cincinnati.

"If you look at the last couple of results, he's been heartened that he can still play," Thomas said. "It all comes down to those few big points. It would be great to see him win a few matches and get on a roll.

"He just loves being out there. He hasn't pulled out the big win yet, but it's coming. I really believe that."

Maybe No. 15 seed Milos Raonic third round? With a win over Marcel Granollers in the second round, hardly a stretch, Blake could have that chance.

Against Lacko, he looked extremely old-school. Gone is the once-trademark sleeveless shirt, replaced by khaki shorts (above the knees), a striped polo shirt and a ball cap with a sharply curved brim -- so not Ricky Fowler.

"It's fun when you're winning," James Blake said. "If my body holds up, the way I'm playing, I think I can do this for a while."

He knows the cynics are out there. He's hearing the old-man jokes in the locker room. But for those of you who would have Blake retire, consider this moment against Lacko:

With the Slovakian serving at 5-all in the first set, trying to save his third consecutive break point, Blake rushed to net and struck what he thought was a winning volley. He screamed and pumped a fist in the direction of his box -- trouble was, it was called out. Blake challenged and the replay on the big screen at Louis Armstrong showed the ball in by the thinnest of margins.

Blake's second fist pump was even more emphatic.

That's why he will continue playing.