- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

NEW YORK — When he was a kid, living nearby and taking tennis lessons in Harlem, James Blake would go the U.S. Open as a fan. He’d get in with tickets for the cheap seats, then look for a chance to sneak down to courtside for a closer look.

These days Blake is front and center. He’s featured in magazine fashion spreads, gets props from the Olsen twins at MTV’s Video Music Awards — oh, yeah, and he’s bolstering his status as part of a crop of rising American stars.

Coming up with some spectacular shots at key moments against a player he’s known for a decade, Blake held on to beat 1995 NCAA champion Sargis Sargsian 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (6) yesterday to reach the Open’s third round for a second straight year.

He joined fellow up-and-comers Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri in the round of 32, while Andy Roddick had a chance to get there with a victory later yesterday.

Along with Mardy Fish, who was seeded 24th but was upset Thursday, they’re looking more and more capable of succeeding Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, et al.

“Before it might have been a little bit of hype,” said Blake, ranked 35th. “Now I feel we’re showing people. We’re doing our best. We really care about Davis Cup. We’re starting to make some waves at big tournaments. We’re starting to make things happen.”

That truly would be an understatement if the 23-year-old Blake claims another victory at the National Tennis Center: His next opponent is Wimbledon champion Roger Federer. The No.2-seeded Federer defeated Jean-Rene Lisnard 6-1, 6-2, 6-0.

Blake lost to 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt at the past two Opens and has been to the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament only once.

“Hometown kid. They could rig a draw for me or something. I guess they didn’t get around to that,” Blake said, smiling. “I’m going to go down swinging. I’m going to go for everything. There’s no reason why I should feel like if I play well, I’m definitely going to lose. He’s human, he’s going to make mistakes.”

Federer didn’t err too often yesterday — or in last month’s Wimbledon final, when he artfully took apart Mark Philippoussis’ game in straight sets.

Philippoussis, also a finalist at the 1998 Open, beat Anthony Dupuis 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. His predecessor as runner-up at the All England Club, No.13 David Nalbandian, weathered a tougher challenge but topped Jarkko Nieminen 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (3).

Other winners included No.8 Rainer Schuettler; No.10 Jiri Novak, who beat Jan-Michael Gambill of the United States in straight sets; No.12 Sjeng Schalken; Hewitt’s Wimbledon conqueror Ivo Karlovic; and No.22 Younes El Aynaoui. Seeded players exiting included No.19 Agustin Calleri, No.25 Albert Costa, No.9 Daniela Hantuchova and No.13 Vera Zvonareva, the Russian teen who surprised Venus Williams at the French Open.

No.17 Meghann Shaughnessy beat Zvonareva 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 and gets top-ranked Kim Clijsters in the fourth round. Hantuchova lost 6-2, 6-4 to Tamarine Tanasugarn, who raised a fist, shrieked with joy and jogged to the net to shake hands after Hantuchova sent a forehand long to make it 5-3 in the second set. Tamarine eventually realized her victory celebration was premature, laughing sheepishly when a replay was shown in the stadium.

Clisters, 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport, No.5 Amelie Mauresmo and French Open semifinalist Nadia Petrova won in straight sets. Davenport, fighting a left foot injury, faces Petrova for a quarterfinal berth.

“This week is just what I needed to give myself some confidence and know that I played well, my foot’s feeling good, save some energy for the second week,” said Davenport, the only past women’s champion here. “The tough rounds begin now.”

The charismatic and self-deprecating Blake makes it sound as if each outing on the court is tough for him, requiring nothing but maximum effort.

“When my career is over, I won’t regret I didn’t have more talent,” he said. “But if I didn’t stay in a few matches mentally, and that cost me, or if I didn’t work hard enough, those are the kind of things when I’m 40 years old I’ll think back on.”

Mental toughness helped against Sargsian, especially when Blake dug a 5-4 hole in the fourth set. Sargsian served to force a fifth set, but Blake broke him with a backhand passing shot down the line.

In the tiebreaker, Blake wasted three match points. But at 6-6, Sargsian put a backhand volley into the net — “just took my eyes off the ball, I guess,” he said — and then sailed a forehand long for his 71st unforced error, 19 more than Blake.

Like his young U.S. cohorts, Blake’s growth as a player is coming match by match. He looked a lot better yesterday than he did in losing at Wimbledon to Sargsian, who knocked off Roddick at the French Open while improving his ranking from 100th at the end of last year to 52nd.

Blake even pulled a trick out of the same bag that produced a left-handed stroke during his first-round win. Blake broke Sargsian’s serve to win the first set with the help of a sequence in which he stumbled to his left for a backhanded retrieval, then switched directions to leap and pound a passing shot from the opposite corner.

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