John Isner prevails over friend James Blake at Legg Mason

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In addition to being the top two American men at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, John Isner and James Blake are about the closest friends can be in an individual sport driven by intense competition.

They live around the corner from each other in Tampa, Fla., and Blake said earlier this week he always eats breakfast at Isner’s house and joked that Isner has “taken so much food out of my fridge I think he owes me a few thousand dollars.”

For a little more than two hours, they set that friendship aside to face off in one of the most anticipated matches of this week in Rock Creek Park. Battling back and forth and through a third-set tiebreak, the 11th-seeded Isner, with his strength and power, emerged a 7-6(7-0), 1-6, 7-6(7-4) winner and moved on to the quarterfinals.

But Isner noticeably had mixed feelings about knocking Blake out so early.

“It’s terrible, to be honest. It’s kind of bittersweet. I’m happy to get through it, but I also kind of feel terrible for James,” Isner said. “I don’t like playing friends, period, but when you do, you want to play them deep in a tournament.”

That wasn’t the fortune afforded these friends this week in the District, and when the two pulled out of their doubles match Thursday night it spelled the end of Blake’s impressive performance.

Just as Isner was upset about having to cut Blake’s tournament short, the veteran offered an opposing viewpoint  that he likes playing close friends.

“You know that no matter what after the match you’re going to be fine,” Blake said. “John and are still going to be neighbors, still going to be golf buddies, still going to be going out to dinner plenty and still going to be cheering each other on.”

During the match, there were moments where the tension and back-and-forth made Isner and Blake look like bitter enemies. The younger Isner  at 26 and 6-foot-9  didn’t waste any opportunities to slam the ball on Blake’s side of the court, asserting some power over the 31-year-old.

But as is typically the case with Isner, it was his serve that set the tone. Just like when he beat Blake in Atlanta last month, Isner had it working. He finished with 13 aces.

“[Against Isner] sometimes its not in your control. Sometimes the racket is taken out of your hand,” Blake said. “It’s a whole different brand of tennis.”

Blake was left ruing missed opportunities, like a double-fault that cost him in the third set. “there’s going to be very few opportunities; you got to take advantage of em when you got em,” Blake said.

Unable to do that, Isner took over in the third-set tiebreak and finished off a match that was worth headline status.

The former University of Georgia star’s run through this tournament is starting to seem reminiscent of 2007, when he reached the final. And that experience  when he played five tiebreakers here  helped him immensely Thursday.

“I’ve been through this situation a lot, and on this court,” Isner said. “So I was pretty comfortable in that third-set tiebreaker.”

Also in third-round action, No. 7 Marcos Baghdatis (earlier a winner over ex-Virginia standout Somdev Devvarman) beat Thomaz Bellucci 3-6, 6-3, 6-2; Donald Young beat Michael Russell 6-3, 6-3; No. 9 Nikolay Davydenko beat No. 5/wild card Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 7-5 and Radek Stepanek beat No. 16 Jarkko Nieminen 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Isner has the opportunity to reprise his success from 2007 and even 2009, when he reached the semifinals and lost to Andy Roddick. All-time at this event, he’s 14-4 and an amazing 8-1 in tiebreakers. There’s no Roddick around to knock him out this time, and Isner seems poised to keep this roll going thanks to heightened confidence.

“[Earlier this season] I don’t think this is a match I would’ve won,” Isner said. “In the pressure situations, things just seem to kind of go your way, and that was the case tonight.”

Unfortunately for Blake, it was at his expense. But he doesn’t even see it that way.

“There’s never going to be any bad blood between us,” Blake said. “We’re too good of friends. If we play again, we’ll be buddies right up until the match and buddies right after the match.”

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