- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

James Blake wasn't on the court 10 minutes before he felt as if he were running in mud on the 111-degree Centre Court at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. He seemed a step slow as he chased down and returned booming shots from Paradorn Srichaphan and got steamrolled in the first set.
But Blake refused to buckle. Remembering the bitter memories he had of losses in two previous ATP Tour finals, he rallied against Srichaphan and held on for a brilliant 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 triumph at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center for his first title on the ATP Tour.
The two finalists dueled for 2 hours, 11 minutes on steamy Centre Court and provided riveting tennis, particularly in the decisive set. The only break in the final set the fifth game proved the difference, as Blake outlasted Srichaphan, who also was seeking his first tour tournament win. Tournament founder Donald Dell called the match the best final in at least 10 years.
"[Losing a final] stings a little. I know that feeling too well, and I didn't want to feel it again," Blake said. "I was a little nervous and a little tight. Being that close, I didn't want to feel that I had my chances and let it slip away."
Blake, 22, won his first tournament at a fitting venue, a tournament that his idol and tennis legend Arthur Ashe helped found in the late 1960s. When Dell was looking to establish the tournament, Ashe said he would offer his support if it were held in the District, a naturally integrated city. Ashe was the last black to reach the final at an ATP tournament in the District when he won the tournament in 1973.
"I can't really comprehend all the things that have gone on this week beating [Andre] Agassi, winning my first title, being the first winner since Arthur Ashe it's such a thrill," said Blake, who became the fourth black to win on tour in the Open era, joining Ashe, MaliVai Washington and Bryan Shelton. "I can't believe I'm actually in comparison with him for something."
Dell, who provided color commentary on yesterday's match for Fox SportsNet, spoke admiringly of Blake's resemblance to Ashe.
"In the way James carries himself, he's a very fiery competitor on the court but a great sportsman and gentleman during the match," Dell said. "He emulates Arthur in a lot of ways. Some of the ways he carries himself are the ways Arthur did."
Once they advanced past the tournament's third round, both finalists were gambling with house money. Neither came to Rock Creek Park with expectations of walking away with the Waterford Crystal trophy, but each coveted the opportunity to secure his first tournament victory. And each played like it.
They played with nothing to lose in their semifinals, with No.14 seed Srichaphan rallying after dropping the first set to Marcelo Rios and sixth-seeded Blake taking apart Agassi in straight sets. However, yesterday Blake appeared tight.
After gaining a break point on Srichaphan's opening service game, Blake won just three more points on the Thai's serve in the set and was broken twice himself.
"I was hitting the ball well and smoking him around," said Srichaphan, who had about 100 vocal fans behind him, including members of Thailand's royal family.
Blake finally got his feet under him in the second. He served for the second set at 5-3, but a couple of unforced errors and a darting Srichaphan backhand that forced a third broke him. Srichaphan held serve for 5-5. In the tiebreak, Blake quickly erased an early Srichaphan mini-break and, serving at 6-5 on his first set point, didn't waste it.
With the match plenty tight and the near-sellout crowd clamoring for more, the third set made it even tighter. Tied at one game apiece, Blake and Srichaphan locked in for four straight deuce games.
Blake dug in and didn't cave on Srichaphan's service game in the third set's fifth game. He let one break point slide by in the five-deuce game but not the second. He put away an easy volley for a 3-2 lead and command of the match.
It was the edge he needed. Srichaphan rallied and had a break point on Blake's next service game, but Blake erased it after a fortuitous bounce on a net cord. He kissed the net after the point, won the game and staved off Srichaphan with his serve three more times to seal the match.
Srichaphan, 23, was denied his first tour title but still gained the highest ranking by an Asian player now in the low 40s since 1980.
At match's end, Blake jumped in the air twice while pumping his fist, then jogged over to greet his parents Betty, whom he wrapped in a big hug, and Tom. Blake said his father, who has sported a beard for about 30 years, agreed to shave it when James won his first tournament. Blake, who played two years at Harvard, won $111,600 and bets with his coach, Brian Barker, and agent, Carlos Fleming, who will have to go skydiving with him.
"I never knew if my first title would ever come," Blake said. "To get it here is great."
Notes Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett defeated Bob and Mike Bryan in the doubles final 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. In wheelchair events, Derrick Bolton of Colorado defeated Larry Quintero 6-7, 6-3, 6-3 for the open division championship.

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