After putting your heart and soul into something for 14 years, after practicing for thousands of hours and traveling hundreds of thousands of miles playing in tennis tournaments all over the world, you cannot simply just walk away when you decide it's time to retire.
James Blake understands this.
Last September, at age 33, he said goodbye to the grind -- and man, it was a grind -- of ATP Tour tennis. But he didn't just walk away. His body might have said thank you for the rest and recovery, but his mind, and more importantly, Blake's heart, said, "What are you doing?" And over the winter as he enjoyed time with his wife, Emily, his daughter, Riley and waited for his second daughter, Emma, to come into the world, Blake tested the waters of other aspects of the sport.
And you know what? Those waters felt pretty good.
Over the past few months, in between Emma's diaper changes, Blake has stayed involved by playing the occasional TeamTennis match with the Springfield (Mo.) Lasers. He also played some Champion Series matches against guys like John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. He's been working with up-and-coming American player Jack Sock and preparing for his upcoming "Legend" matches with Courier and Andy Roddick in a couple of weeks at the Connecticut Open in New Haven.
"I've retired from competitive tennis, but really, it's part of a transition to whatever the next part of my career is going to be," Blake said in a recent phone interview. "Right now, that's playing some exhibitions. The PowerShares (Seniors) Tour was a great time. TeamTennis ¦ I've been doing since my first year on Tour and I love it.
"I'm helping out Jack as well and that's been a great experience for me, to help a young player. I definitely love still being involved in tennis. I just don't exactly know how I'll be involved in it the rest of my life, but I love still being a part of it. It's the sport I grew up playing, it's what I love. It's what brought my family together. It's just been a huge part of my life and always will be."
At the Connecticut Tennis Center, Blake will return to the place where he won his second ATP Tour title -- the 2005 Pilot Pen, in case you were wondering -- and will go against Courier on Aug. 21 and Roddick on Aug. 22. The pair of exhibition matches might bring the J Block, Blake's contingent of fans, back out in force and get the CTC rocking like it hasn't been in years.
"I really think it's going to be a lot of fun," Blake said. "I was pretty heartbroken when the tournament went back to being just women, but I understood the economics and everything of it ¦ but for me, it was a great event. I loved playing close to home, the J Block came out. It was crazy and a lot of fun.
"Anne Worcester is, in my opinion, the best tournament director out there. She came up with this idea to make it possible for the guys to come back and we can play as seniors and hopefully we'll get some crazy and raucous fans coming out. It might not be the same exact intensity on the court, but we're going to have some fun and we're going to hopefully put on a pretty good show."
Especially against Roddick, who, according to Blake, still has a ton of competitive drive flowing through his veins.
"He doesn't like to lose," Blake said. "We've actually practiced a couple of times in L.A., and he still gets (ticked) every time I break him. He occasionally throws his racket over the fence after I break him, he's that competitive. I think you'll definitely see some competitive spirit out there."
Before both matches, there will be a one-hour pro-am event with Blake and Courier on Wednesday and Blake and Roddick on Thursday. Tickets will include dinner, an opportunity for autographs and photos and box seats for the matches on that evening. For more information, visit www.ctopen.org.
Blake, for one, feels like this could be a major exhibition event that the Connecticut Open continues to highlight for years to come.
"I really hope so. I hope a lot of people show up," he said. "I think that fans miss the men not being here for the last couple of years and this gives them a little bit of a reason to come back out and watch us play. I'd love to keep doing it. If they want us to keep coming back, I'd like to keep doing it."