- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- What a difference a day makes, if your name's James Blake. For that matter, what a difference a year makes.
Blake, 26, the No. 8 seed here, personally saw to it Friday that the U.S. men's contingent had a representative in the third round of the French Open -- which has been the case on all but one occasion in Grand Slam play in the Open era -- with a resounding 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 weather-delayed win over Spanish clay-court ace Nicolas Almagro.
The match had started shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday evening despite poor light, chilly conditions and sprinkles of rain. The players were only able to complete the first set before play was abandoned.
A year ago Blake was forced to qualify just to gain a spot in the main draw of the French Open after a well-chronicled journey to the nether reaches of tennis purgatory in the last half of 2004. The triple whammy of a fractured vertebrae in his neck, a case of shingles and the death of his father from cancer made it a year to forget for Blake. His ranking plummeted to No. 210 last April.
Friday, under sunny skies, Blake took advantage of the one-set look he had at Almagro's game the night before. The 20-year-old from Murcia, in southeastern Spain, had compiled a 27-5 record on clay in the lead-up to Roland Garros. Blake had played just six matches on the surface this spring, winning only twice before his two wins this week.
"The conditions today were a little better for me, so that was good," said Blake. "I hadn't seen him play a ton, so it was good to know that just because he's one of the best clay-courters in the world doesn't mean he's unbeatable. Knowing that from last night helped me today.
"I came out [today] with the same kind of confidence I would have had winning or losing that first set against anyone that I felt like I could have a good chance to win the match."
When the match resumed just after mid-day, Blake was a late arrival, and entered the Forum-like atmosphere on Court 1 to whistling from an impatient French crowd.
Unfazed, Blake broke Almagro immediately in the first game and evened the match at one set apiece in 29 minutes. He repeatedly pounced on Almagro's second-serve, crushing winners off both sides and putting the clay-court denizen on the defensive.
"My goal was to really kind of get up and take it early. I didn't want to let it eat me up, especially on the clay. I wanted to make him hit his less comfortable serve because that kick-serve is his favorite serve. I wanted to try to take that away from him."
Blake then climbed back from a 1-4 deficit in the third set, reeling off the last five games to go up by a set, then closed out the match in 2 hours, 38 minutes shortly after breaking Almagro once more in the seventh game of the fourth set.
He'll next play No. 25 Gael Monfils, who'll benefit from the support of his home crowd in Paris.
"It's going to be interesting," Blake said. "He's got a ton of talent. I think he might be the fastest guy on tour. He'll get the crowd into it; I'll try to do my best to take them out of it. [I'll] think about it like we're playing an away Davis Cup match. Hopefully I can get a win."
After qualifying here last year, Blake dropped a five-set match in the second round to Stanislas Wawrinka -- otherwise known as Roger Federer's caddy in Davis Cup -- after taking a quick two-set lead. He shook off that loss and went on to have the best year of his career, winning titles in New Haven and Stockholm and dropping a memorable five-set U.S. Open quarterfinal to Andre Agassi. This year he's won more than two-thirds of his matches (26-12) and added titles in Sydney and Las Vegas.
Earlier in the week Blake briefly reflected upon his annus horribilis:
"[It] seems a long way away from last year, from Tunica and Forest Hills [both Challenger events]. But I also know that it's not that far away. Any time you get injured, lose some confidence or things don't go your way, you're right back in the Challengers.
"Those experiences I had last year keep me grounded and don't let me start thinking that I'm owed any of this. It's fun being where I am right now."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.