- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

As last night’s featured performer, James Blake knew he would play before a packed house as he began his defense of his 2002 Legg Mason Tennis Classic title.

And even though it wasn’t the smoothest of openers, Blake was all smiles after coming away with a hard-fought 7-6, 6-4 win over Gregory Carraz yesterday at William H.G. FitzGerald Center in Rock Creek Park.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Blake said of having the defending champ tag attached to his name. “I feel great on these courts. They suit me perfectly.”

Blake labored through the first set, he and Carraz both holding serve en route to 6-all and a tiebreaker. Carraz was on the verge of winning the tiebreaker after going up 5-2, but Blake won six of the next seven points to take the exhausting set.

“The whole first set was pretty hairy,” said Blake, who had outlasted Carraz 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 in Newport, R.I., earlier this month. “It was really tough.”

It didn’t get any easier in the second set. Up 5-4, Blake withstood three deuces before finally nailing down the win. He celebrated by pumping his fists toward the crowd and hitting two balls into the upper deck.

Top-seeded Andre Agassi also felt a sense of relief after getting the first victory of the week under his belt.

Agassi had not played since Wilmbledon and was not about to overlook his first round match against 123rd-ranked Ivo Heuberger.

The world’s No.1 ranked player kept his focus throughout his business-like 6-3, 6-1 victory to improve his record to 39-9 in matches played in Washington.

“The first one’s always a bit tough because you’re getting used to the environment,” said Agassi, who certainly holds an edge with his five previous Legg Mason titles. “The job’s not done until the match is over with. [Im] always pushing to try to stretch the lead. I don’t take it for granted at any stage.”

Agassi also realized how fortunate he was to play in the weather he did — yesterday’s breezy day was a stark contrast to Monday’s pouring rain that caused lengthy delays and kept fans away. They came back in droves yesterday to pack the seats time for Agassi’s start, filling the seats after hometown product Paul Goldstein dispatched of Brian Baker 6-2, 6-2 to start the action.

Agassi had only played Heuberger once before, winning 6-2, 6-2 in 1998, and wasn’t sure what to expect in their first meeting in five years.

So when Heuberger started zipping aces by him in the first set, Agassi, a noted returner, would glance at the radar screen to double check the speed of the serve he couldn’t handle.

“I just wanted to make sure he was beating me on a quality serve,” Agassi said. “He played aggressive to start with and took his chances, and then I sort of dug my heels in and got in a nice rhythm.”

Heuberger had with 11 aces in the first set to help stay competitive with Agassi.

He could only muster two aces in the second set, which was tied at one before Agassi took five straight games.

“It was a good start, and that’s what it was tonight, it was a start,” Agassi said. “I look forward to getting better as we go along. Winning a tournament is a function of being focused on those days where it’s not coming easy. I’m always pushing myself.”

The tournament’s second seed is Andy Roddick, who took part in a rare doubles appearance last night with Brian Vahaly. Roddick and Vahaly upset top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan 6-4, 7-6, but it wasn’t enough to completely sell Roddick on the idea of playing doubles.

“It’s OK. I don’t think I’m very good at it so it gets a little frustrating at times,” said Roddick, fresh off his singles title in last weekend’s RCA Championships in Indianapolis. “It’s a nice change of pace, though.”

The Bryan twins, who have three doubles titles this year, opened the week by recording singles wins on the same day for the first time, but stumbled last night in an entertaining doubles match.

Bob Bryan will have a chance to knock off Roddick tonight when the two meet in a second-round singles match.

Should Roddick beat Bryan, he’d face a familiar foe in the third round in Greg Rusedski. The two last met in Wimbledon, where Roddick beat Rusedski in the second round as Rusedski went on a foul-mouthed tirade that would get him fined $2,500.

“I’m not worried about two days ago,” said Roddick, only wanting to concentrate on Bryan. “Obviously you’re aware of it, though, and you know it’s down the road.”

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