Brutal draw awaits Blake in early rounds
While James Blake and Roger Federer were all fun and games Saturday at Roland Garros, Greg Garber explains Blake will be all business once the French Open starts.
PARIS -- James Blake, resplendent in turquoise from head(band) to toe, ripped a forehand down the line and Roger Federer did the unfathomable -- he framed a backhand and sent a towering drive worthy of Manny Ramirez 23 rows deep into the end zone.
The near-capacity crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier gasped in unison, but that wasn't the most amazing thing they would see on Saturday. Federer, the world's No. 1-ranked player, lost his first two service games to Blake. That's normally a one-week quota for Federer at a Grand Slam, but this was merely an exhibition match, a warmup for the French Open that begins on Sunday -- a first.
Federer, predictably, rallied to win the one-set match in a 10-8 tiebreaker.
Savor the memory, fans of American tennis. One thing you won't be seeing much of at this year's tournament is, well, Americans. Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport -- winners of a collective 18 Grand Slam singles titles -- won't be playing.
As things stand now, it will take an upset for an American to reach the second week of the tournament.
There are only six U.S. men in the regular draw and that number could well be reduced to five. No. 5 seed Andy Roddick was not among the many players practicing on Saturday and he's not on the Sunday schedule. After spraining ankle ligaments earlier in the week, Roddick may decide that a few matches of pounding on the red clay is not the best preparation for Wimbledon -- a tournament he could actually win.
And so it could be that Blake, the No. 8 seed, represents America's best hope, and he has a difficult early draw. His first-round opponent is Paradorn Srichaphan, once ranked in the top 10. A win would likely pit Blake against Nicolas Almagro, a 20-year-old clay wizard from Spain. The third-round opponent -- if he manages to get that far -- could be No. 25 seed Gael Monfils, who won Roland Garros as a junior in 2004.
Blake lost to Florent Serra in the first round at Rome, but put together back-to-back rounds (one of them against 1998 French Open champions Carlos Moya) before losing to Mario Ancic in the Round of 16 in Hamburg.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable on this clay," Blake said on Friday. "I don't feel like I'm slip-sliding around as much any more. I feel more comfortable playing defense when I need to, just having the patience that's required for this surface.
"That's exciting to me. Whether or not it turns into a lot of success this year, I can't get too excited or too down because I think it's an overall change in my game for clay."
The other Americans -- Justin Gimelstob, Robby Ginepri, Paul Goldstein and Vince Spadea -- should be happy to win a round or two.
On the women's side, the prospects for a second-week appearance are only slightly better. There are 12 U.S. women in the regular draw, but Venus Williams, a 2002 finalist here, is the only one who has even reached the quarterfinals.
She's played fewer than a dozen matches this year because of injuries -- younger sister Serena is sitting this one out with an injured knee -- but has looked relatively solid on clay. She beat Martina Hingis in Warsaw before losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, then won four matches in Rome before losing to Hingis in the semifinals.
And, considering the ill luck of the draw, a number of aspiring second-rounders likely will be sent home after the first. On Sunday, Meghann Shaughnessy has the misfortune of playing No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, who is playing on her home turf. And then there is Mashona Washington, who faces No. 4 seed Maria Sharapova a little later in the day.
Laura Granville's first-round match is against No. 8 seeded Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Lisa Raymond has drawn the No. 12-seeded Hingis.
The story lines are set, even if rain is in the forecast for Sunday. Federer and Mauresmo are both trying to win their second Grand Slam in as many tries in 2006. Both will be challenged by aggressive defending champions, Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin-Hardenne.
"The pressure is here, there's no question about that," Mauresmo said on Friday. "I can say I feel different from other years where it was a little bit of a struggle for me. That's just what I can say today. The rest is going to happen on the court.
"We'll see how I goes."
Federer may be the top seed, but No. 2 seed Nadal is the defending French Open champion and has never lost to Federer on clay -- although he saved two match points on the way to prevailing in five sets over Federer in Rome.
On Saturday, Nadal was hitting with fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo on Court 4. Nadal, lashing huge topspin shots, looked more like a linebacker than a tennis player. If he defeats Sweden's Robin Soderling in his first-round match, he will break the remarkable record he shares with Guillermo Vilas, 53 consecutive victories on clay.
"I have the same victories as Vilas, so that's unbelievable," Nadal said Friday. "I need one more match. I going to try my best -- not for the record -- for Roland Garros. I have very difficult first round against Soderling.
"Last year when I come here, all the people say to me, 'You are the favorite, you going to win Roland Garros.' This year is different. I have one [trophy] in my bedroom. That's important for deal with more calm."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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