James Blake falls to qualifier in opener
WASHINGTON -- By losing six consecutive points, James Blake was heading for his latest early exit from a tournament. After one particularly poor shot capped that stretch, he threw his head back and yelled.
"I definitely get angry at myself, frustrated at myself. ... I'm a competitor. I'm going to want to win everything I play, whether it's tennis, golf, cards, checkers, chess. Anything," Blake said. "I want to win. So if I'm not winning, I'm getting frustrated."
There have been plenty of chances to feel that way this season for the former top-five player, including Monday night, when past Legg Mason Tennis Classic champion Blake lost to 119th-ranked qualifier Ryan Sweeting 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round.
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"I've got to get back to the way I know I can play," said Blake, who has lost his opening match at six of 12 tournaments this season and is ranked 105th.
Another player who used to be at the top of the sport and now is outside the top 100, David Nalbandian, made a successful return to the ATP circuit. Nalbandian beat Rajeev Ram 6-4, 6-0 to win his first tour match since being sidelined with a left hamstring injury 3 1/2 months ago.
Nalbandian was ranked as high as No. 3 and reached the final at Wimbledon in 2002. But he hasn't played in a tournament since losing in the quarterfinals on clay at Monte Carlo in April, and he's currently No. 117. He was given a wild card to play in Washington.
"If I do well, everybody's going to think I'm back," the Argentine said. "If I lose, they'll say, 'Still a long way to go.' But that's the way it is. I'm feeling good."
Next up for Nalbandian is fifth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, while Sweeting will play No. 14 Michael Llodra of France. Qualifier Grega Zemlja eliminated Benjamin Becker 6-2, 6-3 to set up a second-round match Tuesday night against No. 2 Andy Roddick.
In other action Monday, Igor Kunitsyn beat Kei Nishikori 6-2, 6-3, Karol Beck defeated Michael Berrer 6-3, 6-4, Viktor Troicki beat Kevin Kim 6-1, 6-2, and Illya Marchenko knocked off 2003 Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuettler.
Blake's first ATP title came at the Washington hard-court tournament in 2002, but he's not been having that sort of success recently: He's 10-12 in 2010.
He had openings against Sweeting, but went 0 for 4 on break points in the final set.
"I played tentative," Blake said. "When you don't have a lot of matches, you're not going after the shots. ... I need to play more matches, and I need to find a way to get that confidence back."
Blake was in this one, serving at 1-1, 30-all in the third set, when things fell apart. He pushed a running forehand long, then hit a forehand that clipped the net cord before falling on Blake's side. That began the six-point run that ended with Sweeting ahead 3-1.
Sweeting faced at least one break point in each of his service games the rest of the way. On one, at 15-40 in the eighth game, Sweeting hit a 125 mph service winner.
"I just said, 'Go for it,' " Sweeting said, "and luckily, it went in."
The 30-year-old Blake said he wasn't hampered by a right knee injury that began bothering him more than a year ago.
"The knee feels great. That's not a problem at all -- not now, at least," he said.
Blake is a three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist once ranked as high as No. 4. Sweeting's only match victory at a major tournament came when his opponent quit during the first set at the 2006 U.S. Open, and his career-best ranking is No. 116, achieved in May.
All of which is why the 23-year-old Sweeting, who was born in the Bahamas and is a U.S. citizen, called Monday's result "one of the best wins of my career."
"I know his forehand's very dangerous. And when he's moving side-to-side, he's dangerous. So I was just trying to dictate the points towards his backhand," Sweeting said. "If you leave anything hanging for him, he's going to jump on it. He's going to hit winners. He's a shotmaker."
Not often enough, however, on this night. And not often enough this season.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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