By DAN IMHOFF
Post-retirement throws opens a door every player must step through, a world of change – opportunities and challenges – that must be navigated.
Gone is the structured life of a professional athlete – the team no longer around to organize everything from training to tournament transport, diets, flights, just telling them where to be and when.
Only two years apart in age, Tommy Haas and James Blake were contemporaries who rose to the upper reaches of the sport; Haas a former world No.2, Blake a former No.4.
They played each other five times, Blake boasting the edge 3-2, but their most famous showdown fell the way of Haas in a dramatic fifth-set tie-break finish to their US Open fourth-round clash in 2007. Blake prefers to remember his victory over the German before a home crowd in New Haven two years prior.
This week they are back for the Connecticut Open, reliving the glory days and squaring off again in a series of legend’s showdowns. The 40-year-old Haas only announced his retirement from the men’s tour this year. Blake stepped away five years ago.
Both have made a successful transition from being players to tournament directors of joint ATP/WTA events, Blake in Miami, Haas in the preceding tournament in Indian Wells. Many struggle to find their calling after hanging up the racket as a professional. For most, it’s all they’ve ever known.
“I knew last year was going to be my last year on tour. Many times throughout my career, it could have been way earlier due to some of the injuries I had,” Haas said. “I dealt with that in my mind. 2002, end of 2002, I had my first shoulder surgery. All the guys I looked up to that had shoulder surgeries before me didn't have much of a career after that. I had to go back-to-back shoulder surgeries. I knew maybe 24, 25, my career could come to an end.”
Having beaten Roger Federer on home turf in Stuttgart only last year on grass there was understandably some inclination to believe he could still mix it with the best.
“Once the day kind of came, I knew it was going to be tough,” Haas said. “All we do when you're young, you try to become a tennis professional. That's our goal, our dream. When you live it, you go through a lot of ups and downs. You try to see certain situations that could have been better, that you could have done better, all the regrets maybe that you have. All of a sudden you know that I'm not going to compete in tennis any more.”
For 38-year-old Blake, it was much more clear-cut. He didn’t for a second get the itch to compete with the current crop. The American had been through some of his toughest years, fracturing his neck in an on-court accident and losing his father to cancer. In 2015, he was the victim of a mistaken identity and subsequent excessive force by a New York City police officer.
He channelled his frustrations into a positive cause, using his voice and his profile to speak out in support of equality.
“I talked about it in my book, there's a chapter called Accidental Activist. Nothing I planned on being,” Blake said. “I could have very easily just kind of been quiet, gone back to my comfortable life in San Diego with my wife and kids. It's not fair because it's going to happen more and more. And if I didn't say anything, I feel like I'm guilty of not doing all I can to make a difference.”
There were no regrets about calling time on his playing career when he did. In Blake’s mind, he had reached the limit of what he was capable of achieving on court.
“No. These guys are too good,” he said. “Even watching Tommy last year, watching Roger and Rafa. Sometimes you see tennis on TV. It tricks you into looking too easy.
“It is not easy. I see these guys. I always said, I would never get into the commentary booth, be one of those sort of crusty 40-somethings where I'm saying, ‘I could beat those guys. In my day I would have beaten those guys’. No, no, no.
“They're getting better every year. There's a reason I retired: because I can't compete with those guys any more. They're incredible at what they do.”
That door as a touring profession has closed behind both. Back sharing a court, even if it’s an exhibition, it’s enough to maintain a lasting friendship made.
“We have four daughters between us. We talk about changing diapers, play dates,” Blake said. “I'll spare you what we talked about in the locker rooms when we were 23, 22 years old. It's great to see people going through different stages in their lives.
“Then we go out, beat each other up, come back in here and have a beer together. It’s a ton of fun.”