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Monday, November 27, 2006
Updated: November 28, 12:29 PM ET
Roddick and Blake a budding rivalry?


Worldwide, Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal will undoubtedly be one of the principal storylines in tennis in 2007, but we're here to say that the tradition of myopic, soccer-hating, what's-tapas (?), apple-pie-grade American self-absorption is not just alive and well, but screaming for attention. To many of us benighted Yanks, another race for glory may be just as riveting: the budding rivalry between Andy Roddick and James Blake.

Who cares if, between them, they own just one Grand Slam title (the one Roddick earned at the U.S. Open in 2003), as opposed to Nadalerer's, oh, 11? You just couldn't script a more compelling storyline for a U.S. audience if you're looking to skim off the attention of folks who actually own the DVD of 61 (the TV movie about the friendship -- and rivalry -- of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris).

Blake and Roddick have been buddies forever (in tennis, that's roughly 10 years), and the cement that firmed it up was their mutual support for the U.S. Davis Cup effort. There's nothing like a shared sense of mission to foster camaraderie, especially in underdog units. And these days, the old overdogs (U.S. and Australia) have little to crow about beyond the team spirit and solidarity they feel.

Blake pretty much put it into perspective in the course of his run to his title at the RCA Championships this summer: "Andy and I wanted to prove that U.S. tennis is back now," he said. "We're on our surface now and we want to do well going into the U.S. Open and hopefully for the rest of the year."

Ah, anybody remember Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, or even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, using the royal "we" in the heyday of their rivalry? In fact, Blake made that comment just weeks after he had derailed defending champ Andy Roddick in the semifinals at Queens -- where Roddick was hoping to win his fourth title in a row. After Blake waxed Roddick in his own house (on grass), the two players huddled in the locker room after the match and pored over the stat sheet. In the same situation, McEnroe would have surreptitiously put broken glass in Jimbo's loafers.

As it turned out, Blake was prescient. Both he and Roddick finished the year strong. Blake rose to another level as a player by the end of the year, as he finished runner-up to Roger Federer at the ATP Championships; Roddick found his game again under the tutelage of -- yep, Connors.

Heading into 2007, the roles of hunter and hunted are pretty clearly defined. Although Blake vaulted to No. 4 in the world on the strength of his year-end championships result, Roddick is the Big Dog: a former world No. 1, former Grand Slam titleholder (and multiple runner-up), and still a strong No. 6 despite his well-chronicled hardships this year.

Before 2006, Roddick had won all six of his matches with Blake, losing just one set (in their first meeting: Memphis, 2002). But Blake won their last two matches (Queens and Indy), five titles to Andy's one in 2006 and he's now ranked higher. Their won-lost for 2006 has a crazy symmetry: Blake (59-25) won 10 more matches than Andy (49-20), but he also had five more losses. The upshot: Blake's winning percentage was 70.23, Roddick's 71.01.

So the table is set. The wild card may be Jimbo, Roddick's coach and once the Dark Prince of Rivalry. Would he be better off if Jimbo found a way to inject Andy with a little of his own, former, trademark animosity -- the kind of hate he got on for rivals, whether they were countrymen or Swedes or Czechs? Or do we prefer the feel-good option, in which two pals find themselves locked in mortal combat for the bragging rights to the nation?

Whichever way the story develops, it will be a subplot that could take over the storyline in the event that Federer falters, and Nadal fails to unlock the mysteries of hard and fast courts.