Gonzalez' win over Blake was 'war of attrition'

Updated: April 8, 2006, 4:02 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- It was the most brutal of matches in the most genteel of settings, an all-out war of attrition only a short distance from manicured croquet courts where white-clad players tapped balls with mallets.

James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez hammered at each other in quite a different way for nearly 4½ hours Friday in the opening match of the Davis Cup quarterfinals at the Mission Hills Country Club. The wickets didn't line up in the end for the eighth-ranked Blake as Gonzalez prevailed 6-7 (5), 0-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 10-8.

The U.S. team salvaged a split as No. 4 Andy Roddick, one of the world's best grass-court players over the last three years, was pushed to two tiebreaks by 37th-ranked Nicolas Massu but bore down when it counted to win 6-3, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5).

After Massu returned his serve wide on the first match point, Roddick strode to the net in animated conversation with himself, then leaped, lunged and hollered in emphatic celebration.

Earlier in the afternoon, an elated Gonzalez collapsed on his back after drilling a 129-mph ace on his second match point. He pronounced the Davis Cup his "favorite tournament."

"You have to fight until the end because I know that the people in my country, they [are] expecting that it doesn't matter what happens, the thing is to try to give your best until the end of the match," said the 18th-ranked Gonzalez, who won a bronze medal in singles and shared the doubles gold medal with Massu at the 2004 Olympics.

He said he expects to be able to recover in time for Saturday's doubles match against the world's top-ranked team, twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan.

Acting U.S. captain Dean Goldfine, standing in for expectant father Patrick McEnroe, said the Chileans' perseverance came as no surprise.

"These guys seem to find ways, when you think they can't go anymore -- they're like the Energizer Bunny," Goldfine said as Roddick helpfully mimicked the boom-boom-boom of a bass drum into his microphone.

Boisterous, flag-waving Chilean fans, in numbers at least equal to the home crowd, made the cozy 4,000-seat stadium into a virtual soccer venue with high-decibel chanting and cheering throughout Blake's match. They kept it up even as the depleted, dejected Blake was driven from the stadium in a golf cart, surrounding the vehicle and beating on the roof as it buzzed away.

Blake is now 0-7 lifetime in five-set matches. Four of those losses have come after he was up two sets -- the previous three in Grand Slam events, perhaps most memorably in last year's U.S. Open quarterfinals when Andre Agassi outlasted him in the wee hours on his march to the final.

A reporter pointedly asked about the winless streak after the match, eliciting an equally pointed response from Blake.

"You want to kick my dog, too, while you're here?" Blake said in a level voice.

"You know, it's not a whole lot of fun to lose those& I wish I could come in here and say there's some reason, that it's nerves or something I could fix really quickly, my body giving out, anything," he said.

AP Photo/Chris CarlsonJames Blake had no good excuses for his loss to Chile's Fernando Gonzales.

Blake credited Gonzalez for coming back after "hanging his head a little" in the third set. "Fernando is always dangerous, no matter what," he said. "He started playing like the Fernando I've come to know, the one who can hurt you in an instant."

Blake voiced displeasure with Chilean captain Hans Gildemeister's frequent complaints to the chair umpire, even after a third-set overrule that deprived Blake of a match point and proved to be the fulcrum of the match.

Gonzalez' multiple medical timeouts -- called for cramping and a muscle strain -- also stretched the limits of sportsmanship, Blake and Goldfine said.

"You think that belongs in the major leagues or the bush leagues?" Blake asked rhetorically. "I don't think that's the way [tournament founder] Dwight Davis wrote it up."

Gonzalez also shrugged off Blake's criticism, saying it was not unusual to cramp in a match of that length under a glaring desert sun that turned the boxy stadium into a convection oven. But the Chilean had gripes of his own about the quality of the court, which he said would never be confused with Wimbledon.

"I mean, this grass, I don't want to say, but it's really bad," Gonzalez said. "Really low bounces. You cannot play. Sometimes the ball was coming with no power."

However, Gonzalez mustered plenty of punch during stretches of the match, mixing his usual slashing forehand with lots of backhand slices and coming to the net more than might have been expected for a baseliner. He broke Blake in the third game of the first set as the 26-year-old American looked tentative in the early going.

Blake recouped to even things up at 5-all and eventually won a tiebreak with a scintillating stop volley, then blanked the Chilean in the second set. Gonzalez looked unraveled when he took a medical timeout to have a trainer massage his shoulders.

He began his unlikely comeback when Blake was serving for the match up 5-4 and 30-15 in the third set. The call on Blake's apparent forehand winner was overruled, deemed just wide by the chair umpire.

Momentum swung swiftly. Gonzalez cracked a backhand return winner on break point. Both men held serve then, and Gonzalez allowed Blake just two points in the ensuing tiebreak. Gonzalez earned the only break he needed to go up 3-2 in the fourth set, and the men played on in the broiling conditions.

Blake seemed to siphon the last bit of fuel from his tank at the start of the fifth set as he induced Gonzalez to smack a forehand long on break point to take a 3-1 lead. He extended that to 4-1, then lost five straight games. Blake grabbed one last fingerhold in the match by breaking Gonzalez to even things at 6-6.

There are no fifth-set tiebreaks in Davis Cup. Blake and Gonzalez both held serve until Blake double-faulted to go down 9-8. Gonzalez closed out the marathon with four aces in the last game, including one wicked 106-mph second serve.

One of Blake's few consolations was that he might have worn out Gonzalez and made him an easier mark in Saturday's doubles match, which Gonzalez said he still hoped and expected to play. "I hope back in the hotel the Bryans are smiling right now," he said.

Roddick, in search of a course correction after a subpar early season, said he was motivated by the desire to pick Blake up to return the favor Blake did for him in the first round of Davis Cup in February. "He covered my butt and really saved the tie [best-of-five round]," Roddick said.

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.