Saturday, September 03, 2005

Blake and Agassi Prevail In Four

With America's best hope Andy Roddick out in the first round, other players have stepped up at this year's U.S. Open. One has been James Blake and another is 35-year-old legend Andre Agassi. Saturday afternoon in front of a soldout Arthur Ashe Stadium, both overcame tough opponents in four sets to move on to the Round of 16 within one match of a quarterfinal showdown.

The 25-year-old Blake from Yonkers took the court first and had overwhelming support in upsetting second ranked Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. The match was a toe-to-toe baseline battle between two of the hardest hitters in the game. But the 19-year-old Nadal, who won his first slam at this year's French Open was outslugged by a determined Blake in an exciting two and a half hours.

Often in lengthy rallies, both players took turns hitting big shots. But on this day, the elder Blake dictated more and made his opponent look like a normal 19-year-old. Nadal, who is a musclebound fitness guru usually is able to wear down opponents with his hustle and grit. On this day, Blake gave Nadal a taste of his own medicine finishing with 53 winners to the second seed's 29.

After the two traded 6-4 sets, Blake took control early in the third set when the match shifted on two critical games. With Nadal leading 2-1, Blake suddenly found himself facing triple break point but escaped the jam taking the final five points to level the match. With tons of supporters chanting "Let's go James," Blake seized the momentum playing an outstanding fifth game to break Nadal with a perfect topspin lob, pumping his fist. After holding serve easily, he wasn't done coming back from 40-15 down to claim the set on an exciting point. Even though he moved Nadal all over the court, the second seed still ran down a lob and overhead but Blake punctuated the set with a slam even Nadal couldn't reach.

With Nadal demoralized, Blake broke twice in an easier fourth set. In Nadal's first two rounds, his serve was only broken once. On this day, his opponent converted six of eight break chances to his two of 10. When he finally netted a backhand, Blake had his first ever Open appearance into the fourth round.

After the match, a clearly emotional Blake couldn't put into words how he felt telling fans, "I truly wish every single person in here could have the feeling I have now.''

Blake is the best story of this year's Open because of what he's overcome. Last year in Rome during a warmup, he fractured vertebrae in his neck when he slammed into a net post. As if that wasn't enough, he lost his Dad to cancer two months later and then battled the disease shingles which partially paralyzed his face for a brief period. At this time last year, he watched the tournament on TV with friends and didn't know if he'd ever return. Now, he's playing the best tennis of his career and will meet the winner of Tommy Robredo-Sebastien Grosjean for a chance at the quarters.

Agassi (7) had a struggle of his own against talented 19-year-old Czech Tomas Berdych (32) coming back to win 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (2).

Berdych's big game gave Agassi problems early on breaking him in the fourth game when the American served one of an uncharacteristic seven double faults. Outslugging the seventh seed with huge forehands that produced nearly half of his 50 winners, Berdych made the break stand up claiming the opening set.

With the crowd sensing that Agassi was in trouble, the crafty vet lifted his game by keeping many rallies alive resulting in several unforced errors from his unsteady opponent. He quickly shifted the momentum with an early break and held to go up 3-0. When he claimed another break to lead 5-1, Agassi served out the set to even the match.

Clearly rattled, Berdych dumped the opening game of the third set with some more loose shots. It turned out to be the difference because Agassi made the break stand up. As Berdych steadied himself, he made Agassi earn it by saving two set points. But Agassi finally captured the set on the third try.

With the first three sets taking just 94 minutes to play, Berdych had enough left to push Agassi in a highly competitive 56 minute fourth set. Pressuring him early, he forced Agassi to save a couple of break points with some fantastic shots in the sixth game. Amazingly enough, the player 16 years older was more fit and up to the challenge. With Berdych undeterred, he finally earned a break when Agassi sailed a forehand long to lead 5-3. With a chance to serve for a final set, he misfired three more of his 43 unforced errors and donated the break right back. Clearly frustrated, he slammed a ball afterwards.

Using several drop shots in the late stages which Berdych didn't run for, Agassi sent the set to a tiebreak. In it, Agassi served well and hit cleaner shots to put away the match 7-2. He finished with 15 aces to Berdych's 11 and 20 less unforced errors (23).

The victory was his 74th at the Open, passing Ivan Lendl for second most all-time at the event, trailing just Jimmy Connors, who won 98. Afterwards he told the crowd, "I'm still here for one more day," to cheers. He'll next face Xavier Malisse, who cameback from two sets down to defeat Mikhail Youzhny (24) 5-7, 1-6, 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (1).

Also advancing were Guillermo Coria (8), Richard Gasquet (13) and Nicolas Massu.

In third round women's action, seventh seed Justine Henin-Hardenne struggled in a 6-0, 7-6 (4) win over Korean Yoon Jeong Cho. She'll face Mary Pierce (12), who won 6-3, 3-0 when Jelena Jankovic (17) retired.

In a battle of Russians, Elena Likhovtseva (19) fought off a match point to comeback and defeat Anastasia Myskina (13) 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6). She'll next play third seed Amelie Mauresmo, who handled Anna-Lena Groenefeld 7-5, 6-3.

Also moving on despite 19 double faults was sixth seed Elena Dementieva coming from behind to eliminate Anna Chakvetadze (29) 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5). She'll face Patty Schnyder (11) next. Nathalie Dechy advanced in three over Tatiana Golovin 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 and will play second seed Lindsay Davenport. Davenport had no trouble with Spaniard Anabel Medina Garriques (32) winning 6-3, 6-2.

In men's third round action, American Robby Ginepri was scheduled to take on German Tommy Haas (29).


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