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Blake happy to avoid bowing out on historic anniversary

James Blake of the U.S. waves to the crowd after losing to Ivo Karlovic of Croatia at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York August
James Blake of the U.S. waves to the crowd after losing to Ivo Karlovic of Croatia at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York August

By Will Swanton

NEW YORK (Reuters) - James Blake just about achieved his wish of avoiding defeat on the 50th anniversary of the Great March On Washington when his career-ending loss at the U.S. Open concluded past midnight at Flushing Meadows on Thursday.

The American former world number four had led two sets to love before succumbing to Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic 6-7(2) 3-6 6-4 7-6(2) 7-6(2) in front of more than 10,000 fans, who gave him a standing ovation as he left Louis Armstrong Stadium.

"I thought about that a lot this morning," Blake said of the anniversary of the civil rights protest that was highlighted by Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I thought it would be a great day to get a win because of how important this day is in our history," he said of a first round match that had started late in the evening on Wednesday

"Maybe we should take it that at midnight, hopefully I was winning... and I lost the next day."

The African-American Blake was inspired to play tennis when he heard three-time grand slam winner Arthur Ashe speak in Harlem and the 33-year-old New York native has been outspoken on social issues throughout his career.

"To have something that was a demonstration 50 years ago that still resonates today, and still is sort of a beacon for what Martin Luther King did, how much he progressed the civil rights movement, I'm proud that I'm in a situation now where I don't have to face the same things he had to face," Blake said.

"I don't have to face the same things my dad had to face.

"But I also don't think we're at the finish line. I think it's a good reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary, to let people know that the civil rights movement isn't over."

Blake, who represented the United States at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, also used his final post-match news conference to criticize the anti-gay laws announced by Russia ahead of next year's Sochi Winter Games.

BATTLES CONTINUE

"It's sad," he said.

"We're still in this fight. I don't know if a boycott would change that. I don't know all the politics that go into a boycott, but I know that policy is unacceptable.

"I wouldn't want to be over there. I wouldn't want to have anyone associated with me."

Blake said Russia's stance highlighted the battles for equality still being waged 50 years after the Great March on Washington.

"I think everyone at this point, when you look at the numbers, someone in your circle, whether it's a family member or a friend, is gay, transgender or bisexual," he said.

"You should appreciate that those people are valued members of society, people that are doing something good in the world.

"They should feel comfortable to live their lives.

"Any sort of policy that discriminates against them, that excludes them, is completely unfair in today's day and age. That's why I say we're 50 years out and there are still things going on that are discriminatory."

On the court, Blake's final action was to launch an unsuccessful line call challenge but he said that despite the loss, he was proud of putting up a fight in the last singles match of a commendable career beset by a host of problems.

At the age of 13, Blake was diagnosed with scoliosis and for five years was forced to wear a full-length back brace for 18 hours a day.

In 2004 he broke his neck from colliding with a net post in Rome and suffered a family tragedy just months later when his father died of stomach cancer. Blake then developed shingles, which temporarily paralyzed half his face and blurred his sight.

The following year, Blake was named the ATP's comeback player of the year and in 2008, he was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year by the sport's governing body.

"Now I'll go back to being a normal person," he added after ending his career with 10 tournament victories.

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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