Blake moves past Santoro at Open
August 31, 2007
NEW YORK ” No matter the setting, no matter how well he played, James Blake simply couldn’t figure out how to win a fifth set.
And when he finally prevailed in a match that went the distance, ending an 0-for-9 drought, Blake was too exhausted to celebrate wildly, instead simply raising his arms in the air and slowly walking to the net for a sweat-soaked ” and sweet ” embrace with his opponent.
The No. 6-seeded Blake outlasted Fabrice Santoro 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the second round of the U.S. Open to win a 3-hour, 25-minute struggle that began Thursday evening and ended after midnight Friday.
“There used to be a big monkey right there,” Blake said, pointing to his back, “and now it’s gone. I got the monkey off my back. I got a five-setter.”
Santoro, at 34 the oldest man left in the tournament, faded down the stretch. At 4-4 in the fifth, he held three break points ” and Blake saved them all. Then, in the final game, Santoro led 30-love on his serve ” and Blake took the final four points.
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“To the last point, I thought I had a good chance,” Santoro said. “He was tired, but I was for sure more tired.”
He sat with an old-fashioned ice bag perched atop his head while a trainer massaged his left foot and both thighs in the final set. Santoro asked for a medical timeout in the middle of a game after double-faulting. Later, he opted not to sit at all during changeovers, worried about cramping.
Blake is seven years younger and was far fresher, even clear-minded enough to switch hands for a lefty shot that helped win a point.
“I actually, honestly said to myself at the beginning of the fifth set: ‘I’m going to win this match,'” Blake said. “The whole five-set jinx never got into my head. But this time, I said, ‘I’m not going to let it happen.'”
And he did not, breaking in the final game with a cross-court backhand winner that Santoro could only toss his racket at. Blake left his racket on the ground, too, and they met at the net.
Blake put his arm around Santoro and told him, “You played so hard.”
“He told me it’s amazing what I’m doing at my age,” Santoro said. “I said, ‘Thanks, my son.'”
Blake’s U.S. Davis Cup teammate and poker pal, No. 5 Andy Roddick, advanced earlier Thursday when his opponent quit with a knee injury, and defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova won in 51 minutes.
Then came as entertaining a match as this year’s Open has produced. Blake and Santoro applauded the other’s winners. Santoro playfully stuck out his tongue when Blake produced a great drop shot.
“I would love to play for two more hours,” Santoro said, “because I had a lot of fun tonight.”
There was wonderful shotmaking by both ” but particularly by Santoro, his game filled with dinks and lobs, mixing in all sorts of spins and angles while hitting two-fisted off both wings. His play was as colorful as his polo shirt’s thin pastel stripes of pink, yellow and lime, and he finished with only 21 unforced errors ” to Blake’s 71.
“He makes everyone he plays angry,” said Blake, who built an 83-39 edge in winners. “You’ve got to be ready for everything against Fabrice. Luckily I came out on top today.”
After one superb, 18-stroke exchange in the third set, Santoro leaned over a sideline wall, and a fan ran down a few stadium steps to offer an encouraging slap on the back.
Blake’s game is more about court coverage and powerful forehands, and he’s always had his most success on hard courts, including reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals each of the last two years.
Three of Blake’s previous fifth-set flops came at Flushing Meadows, including against Andre Agassi in 2005.
“I’ve had so many close ones here ” so many little things not going my way,” Blake said.
Now, however, he is 1-9 in five-set matches. Told after the match of Blake’s record, Santoro noted: “But he never played a five-set match against a 34-year-old guy.”
Santoro’s claims to fame are his creativity and his longevity. This is his 61st Grand Slam tournament, tying Andre Agassi’s career record ” but he only has one quarterfinal appearance. And this is his 16th U.S. Open, most among players in the draw.
The record for that? Jimmy Connors played in 22 U.S. Opens. One of those was in 1991, when he made a stirring run to the semifinals at age 39.
Roddick was 9, and thrilled to be on the scene as a birthday treat, something he got to do a couple of times as a kid.
“I’d get here for the first match, and I wouldn’t leave till it was over. Those are probably my fondest memories, just sneaking into the nosebleed sections,” Roddick recalled. “I actually snuck into the players’ lounge one time and stole a cheesecake.”
He still comes to Flushing Meadows at birthday time, nowadays as a competitor ” and with a certain James Scott Connors tagging along as his coach.
Roddick turned 25 on Thursday and marked the occasion by reaching the U.S. Open’s third round, although not before losing the opening set against Jose Acasuso of Argentina. But Acasuso eventually succumbed to injury.
“That’s the good thing about Grand Slams: You get in the grind, and whoever doesn’t mind the grind wins,” Connors said after watching the match through silver wraparound sunglasses. “The way Andy played today, especially in the second and third sets, is always good. As long as he’s playing the right kind of tennis, that’s all that counts.”
Sharapova sure played the right way, overwhelming 90th-ranked Casey Dellacqua of Australia 6-1, 6-0.
“I think she’ll most definitely go all the way,” Dellacqua said.
One of Sharapova’s second serves showed up at 129 mph, which would have tied Venus Williams’ Grand Slam record ” but the company that oversees the serve-speed system at the U.S. Open called it a glitch.
“It was definitely a mistake, because, one, I’ve never hit a 129 in my life, let alone a second serve, and, two, it definitely didn’t feel like a 129,” she said. “So definitely wishful thinking.”
The buzz already was starting around the grounds, meanwhile, for a third-round encounter still 48 hours away: No. 1 Roger Federer against 6-foot-9 American wild-card John Isner on Saturday.
Roddick provided a scouting report.
“Isner’s going to be very tall,” he said, “and Roger’s going to be very good.”
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