- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

After a two-hour rain delay, unseeded Marat Safin upset Legg Mason Tennis Classic top seed James Blake 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) last night.

Blake became the ninth seeded player to make an early exit from the tournament.

After returning from the rain delay, Safin broke Blake’s serve to even the score 4-4.

Safin then rocketed three aces, while winning four consecutive points, to take a 5-4 lead, and eventually, the first set.

Twice in the second set, it appeared as if Safin’s temper would cost him the match.

After losing a challenge during the 3-3 game, he kicked a ball into the crowd. Late in the set, after falling behind 6-5, Safin hit a ball over the stadium at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.

Safin regained his composure, though, and recorded 10 aces in a match that featured two power hitters.

“He made it tough,” Blake said. “I felt like I was kind of in between, sometimes I was a little too tentative, sometimes I was going for a little too much. He served big on the big points.”

At times Blake and Safin simply exchanged winners without a meaningful rally.

Both players struggled with serves. Neither man won more than 25 percent of his first serves.

But the match remained close. Safin won just 52 percent of the points — enough to pull out a victory and advance to the quarterfinals.

“I don’t have much to lose actually,” Safin said. “He is the kind of player that is pretty aggressive at the baseline. You have no chance defending, so you have to attack.”

The difference was Safin’s performance in the tiebreakers.

Safin trailed 3-1 in the first tiebreaker, but battled back to tie it 5-5. Blake then double-faulted to hand Safin a 6-5 lead and essentially the set.

In the second, decisive tiebreaker Safin jumped out to a 4-1 lead.

“I felt like I was a kind of a split second slow on a few things,” Blake said about his performance in the tiebreakers. “Obviously he hits a big ball. But I was a little slow and he took advantage of that.”

Safin, ranked No. 92 in the world, improves to 2-0 all-time against No. 5 Blake.

This marks Blake’s first loss in six matches. He won the RCA Championships in Indianapolis on July 17, but he sat out of last week’s Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles.

The loss is a large blow to the highest-ranked American just weeks before the U.S. Open.

But, perhaps the last point was indicative of Safin’s upset victory.

After Blake unleashed a strong serve deep in the corner, Safin’s return bounced off the net — surprising Blake, who could only return with a weak shot that set up Safin for an easy winner.

“It was bad luck, but that is the game,” Blake said about the last point. “He put himself in a position to have that happen.”

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