NEW HAVEN — These days, there are many hats that fit on top of James Blake’s head.
There’s the charity hat (the James Blake Foundation), there’s the TV hat (commentator for Tennis Channel), there’s the author hat (he’s written two books), there’s the father hat (two growing daughters, Riley and Emma), there’s the husband hat (wife, Emily) and there’s the latest one, the tournament director’s hat (Miami Open).
Wow, that’s a lot of hats.
But it’s when Blake — who grew up in Fairfield and for a shining moment in 2006, reached No. 4 in the ATP Tour rankings — puts on his tennis hat to compete in events like the Invesco Legends Series QQQ match he played Thursday night against Tommy Haas at the Connecticut Tennis Center, that’s when the enjoyment of the game comes flooding back in waves of fun.
“It’s a ton of fun,” Blake said, speaking in a pre-match presser with Haas. “I love playing and I’ve gotten to play a little bit more these last few days, so it’s exciting to be here, getting in shape, not quite the shape that Tommy’s in, it’s going to be tough tonight but it’s fun either way, it’s fun because it’s part of what you miss about the sport, you become friends and you miss that.”
Apparently, you also miss the locker room banter that players routinely went through during their playing days, although the topics of conversation are a lot different today at ages 38 (Blake) and 40 (Hass) respectfully.
“Tommy and I, we have four daughters between us, so we talk about changing diapers and play dates and things like that instead of … I’ll spare you what we talked about in the locker room when we were 22, 23 (years old),” Blake said. “It’s great to see everyone going through different stages in their lives and then go out there and beat each other up and come back in here and have a beer together. It’s a ton of fun and it’s part of what I miss about the tour.”
Haas, who just retired in March, battled through shoulder issues over the course of his career — missing the entire 2003 season as well as over a year from February 2010 to June 2011 — but still managed to capture 15 titles, winning 569 times, including a silver medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
“After having back-to-back shoulder surgeries, I knew that my career could come to an end like at, 24, 25 years old, so I always had to deal with that in the back on my mind,” Haas said. “Once the (retirement) day came, I knew it was going to be tough, but this is great, the pressure is kind of off because you’re not worried anymore when you do lose. It’s a great way to stay in shape, personally I never liked going to the gym. To have this opportunity is great.”
Blake, with 10 ATP titles, has also won 11 career crowns in the Invesco Legends Series, including last week in Winston Salem, N.C. where he spanked Andy Roddick 6-1. And this trip marked his fourth return to New Haven where in years past, Blake enjoyed some of his greatest successes, including winning the 2005 and 2007 Pilot Pen tournaments and seeing the creation of the fan-crazy “J Block.”
In their playing days, Haas and Blake met five times, with Blake’s highlight win a three-set thriller in the third round in 2005 here in New Haven en route to winning the Pilot Pen.
“I don’t remember that match,” Haas said.
“I certainly do,” smiled Blake.
“I remember the match we played at the U.S. Open,” Haas retorted.
“Forget about that match,” shrugged Blake.
That U.S. Open match — ironically the last time the two players faced each other — was a five-set marathon in the round of 16 in 2007 with Haas winning 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 7-6 (4).
Thursday night’s one-set contest didn’t exactly have the electricity of that U.S. Open match, as both players joked back and forth. When a Blake volley hit the net cord and fell back on his side, he said, “This is supposed to be my home court,” and when a fan shouted out, “Let’s go James,” Blake retorted, “Not quite the J Block.”
With a break of Blake’s serve in the fourth game, Haas took a 3-1 lead, only to see Blake rally to take the next four games to go in front 5-3. But after Haas held to make it 5-4, Blake did the same, a forehand winner ending a 6-4 set.
With those many hats that he now wears, there simply isn’t time for Blake to even consider about a “I could still be playing” thought — not that he would.
“No, these guys are too good,” Blake said. “Even watching Tommy last year, watching Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal), sometimes you see tennis on TV. It tricks you into looking too easy. It is not easy. There’s a reason I retired: because I can’t compete with those guys any more. They’re incredible at what they do.”