- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

NEW YORK — The worst birthday of Andy Roddick’s life ended with three straight tiebreak losses and a shocking first-round exit from the U.S. Open against a player making his debut in the tournament.

Roddick, the champion two years ago and the No. 4 seed this year, fell 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (1) on his 23rd birthday last night to Gilles Muller, the first man from Luxembourg to compete in the Open.

The 22-year-old Muller, ranked 68th, outhustled, outmaneuvered and, most astonishingly, out-aced Roddick 24-17 to claim his second huge upset of the summer. In his first Wimbledon, he beat French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

Asked how he managed to dismantle Roddick, Muller replied sheepishly, “I have no idea.”

“For me, it was just unbelievable to come out here today,” Muller said. “I told myself to enjoy it and I did every minute.”

Roddick hated every minute of it after blowing a 5-2 lead in the first set and a chance to serve out that set at 5-3. From then on, Roddick was frustrated by the left-handed Muller’s canny mix of angled groundstrokes and serves, his blend of speeds, and his amazing ability to hit line after line.

Muller didn’t serve as fast as Roddick but that didn’t matter. Roddick couldn’t figure out how to break him in the tiebreaks and in the last two sets. Rather than asserting himself, Roddick looked flat as Muller dictated the match and forced the action, running up 65 winners to Roddick’s 39, though making 33 unforced errors to 15 by Roddick.

Roddick’s experience in Ashe Stadium was the polar opposite of that of fellow American James Blake, who celebrated his continued revival on the highest level earlier in the afternoon.

Backed by his friends and many fans chanting “James! James! James!” in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blake served a 131 mph ace to reach match point, then ripped a backhand passing shot to beat No. 28 seed Greg Rusedski, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Unseeded, James may not be a threat to win the Open. He’s playing the best tennis of his life at age 25, but he harbors no illusions that he’s in the same class as No. 1 Roger Federer, who won his first-round match against Czech newcomer Ivo Minar 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in 1 hour, 1 minute earlier in the day, or No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who could end Blake’s run in the third round.

It was a sweltering afternoon at the Open as No. 12 Tim Henman of Britain lost 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco. Women’s No. 2 Lindsay Davenport won in straight sets in the breezy evening after No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 6 Elena Dementieva and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, No. 7, did the same during the day. There were touches of drama in three-time French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten’s 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory over Rockville’s Paul Goldstein.

But there was no more joyous scene than in the stadium as Blake played his heart out a year after he could do no more than watch the tournament from home.

“It was tough to watch,” Blake said. “I kept thinking, ‘I wonder how I’d be doing if I was there.’ Now this year to go out there, it’s just a great feeling.”

Blake won his first tournament in three years on Sunday in New Haven, Conn., not far from where he grew up in Fairfield. It was a victory, a few weeks after he reached the final in Washington against Andy Roddick, that showed how far Blake had come since his lowest moments — when he lay in a hospital bed with a fractured neck last spring from a freak accident on court; or when he later contracted an illness that affected his sight and hearing and temporarily paralyzed part of his face; or when he watched his father dying of cancer last summer.

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