Avoiding the End
Pro tennis is among the most difficult of sports for knowing when it's time to pack it in.
In team sports, at a certain point nobody will hire you. The teams decide it, and rare are the players who walk away with good money on the table.
Golf? Good players keep going well past the retirement age of other sports, then can often walk seamlessly on to the senior's tour. Heck, Ken Duke, at age 44, became the oldest first-time winner on the PGA tour in 18 years earlier this season.
Tennis, however, comes with a due date in terms of true competitiveness, usually somewhere in the late twenties or early thirties. But figuring out precisely when that due date is could be the biggest challenge in the sport.
And deciding whether to ignore it is another.
We saw two examples of that Wednesday night at Flushing Meadows with Venus Williams and James Blake, two 33-year-old athletes who just happen to also be among the most influential African-American players of recent times, no small thing on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous speech in Washington.
Blake formally retired from singles competition after losing a heartbreaking five-setter to 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic of Croatia late Wednesday after blowing a two sets to love lead.
Seven years ago, Blake had climbed to No. 4 in the world and was a threat at Grand Slam events, if never a champion. But then came the slow slide. No stranger to serious health issues, Blake struggled to keep body and soul together and by 2008 was out of the top 10 for good. A year later he was out of the top 20, then in three years out of the top 100.
But he kept plugging away although it was clear in the past two years he couldn't seriously contend on the world stage. His last tournament win was in 2007, but reaching the finals at smaller events in 2009 kept him going. He won $250,000 in prize money last year, $292,000 the year before, not even close to the minimum salary in team sports.
“I got to [No.] 4 in the world, so I had to have some pretty decent cards,” Blake said after losing to Karlovic. “I definitely did the best I could with them. I played them the way I could. I made mistakes. No doubt about it. If you’re a poker player, you’re going to lose pots, but you try to minimize the losses.”
He's an educated man who attended Harvard. What kept him going? The simple fact that in tennis, with many tournaments happy to have his name in the draw, he could keep going? Or that he just loved it so much?
Williams, meanwhile, once laid claim to being the best female player in the world, and was a multiple Grand Slam champion. She and Zheng Jie of China delivered probably the most entertaining and compelling women's match of the U.S. Open so far on Wednesday night, with Zheng prevailing in a third set tiebreak.
Williams, despite the constant wishfulness of ESPN, is a spent force, at least partly because she suffers from the debilitating effects of Sjogren's Syndrome.
She showed flashes against Zheng, but generally isn't close to what she once was, and constantly catching errant service tosses has become a strange little tic in her game.
Thing is, people still want to watch her play. I know I do, at least more than many other WTA players. On a women's tour desperate for real stars, she's a gate attraction, and by her own admission, she hopes to keep playing through the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a doubles partner to her sister, Serena. She can often come up with at least one good win in a tournament, as she did in the opening round at the U.S. Open when she knocked off No. 12 Kirsten Flipkens after losing to her in Toronto two weeks earlier.
"If I didn't think I had anything in the tank, I wouldn't be here," said Williams after her three hour, two minute slugfest with Zheng.
"So I feel like I do, and that's why I'm here."
Blake has known for years he couldn't be a contender, but he kept going until now. Williams, now No. 60 in the world, seems to have avoided reaching that same conclusion, or at least doesn't want to yet.
In tennis you don't get cut or find yourself an unrestricted free agent without a contract.
You can just keep playing and losing, trading indefinitely on what you once were.