Blake, Fish will put friendship on hiatus

Updated: August 29, 2008

Friends turn foes

NEW YORK -- Like the upper 80s in Manhattan, the third round at the U.S. Open is a pricey piece of real estate.

It means you are one of the 32 remaining players in one of the year's most significant tournaments. It's a guaranteed $46,000 payday for six or seven hours of work. Most important, it is an opportunity to reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam -- breathing more life into all of the dizzying possibilities beyond.

Mardy Fish's third-round match represents a first. In eight previous U.S. Open appearances, he has never gone this deep into the draw and reached only one career Grand Slam quarterfinal. Three years ago, Fish was ranked as high as No. 17 in the world. He has played well this year, and this is his best chance to return to that high ground.

James Blake, approaching the age of 29, has played in two career Grand Slam quarterfinals -- here, in 2005 and 2007. He's ranked No. 9 in the world, and continues to beat the player's he's supposed to in prestigious hard-court tournaments, including a recent fourth-place finish in the Beijing Olympics.

Both Blake and Fish beat the mighty Roger Federer this year, but only one of them can win when they meet Saturday night in the late match. The only problem? They are the best of friends on the professional tour.

Now that's … awkward!

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

James Blake defeated Mardy Fish the last time they played in the New Haven final last year.

The funny thing? In a very real sense, they are where they are because of each other. They have trained together for nine years at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, usually 15 to 18 weeks each year.

While Blake and Fish have only met professionally three times -- Bake has won twice -- they are constant companions off the court. They live in the same Tampa suburb and they compete relentlessly, whether it's golf, bowling, laser tag, go-karts or paintball.

"Mardy takes it easy on James in golf," said Thomas Blake, James' brother, explaining that Fish is close to a scratch golfer and Blake is in the 14-15 handicap range. "Whenever we're home, we're always together, competing.

"Who's better at all that stuff? Well, they'll both tell you they're better than the other."

Saddlebrook, with its tennis-perfect weather and 45 courts, is a professional tennis enclave. The Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, train there. So do fellow Americans John Isner and Amer Delic. Occasionally, Andy Roddick, Jelena Jankovic and Tommy Robredo put in appearances.

Kevin O'Connor, head of tennis at Saddlebrook, picked up Blake at the airport after he left Harvard University to turn pro in 1999 and helped him set up a bank account. According to O'Connor, Blake and Fish pushed each other from the beginning -- they even lived together for a year.

The two turn virtually every practice session into a competition. They'll play baseline points to 11 or 21, run down lobs and play all kinds of service games. Invariably, these episodes devolve into the charmingly named game of "Butts Up."

The loser of the drill du jour is required to stand on the opposite baseline, bend over and … well, the name says it all. The winner or winners then draw a bead on the target and start thumping serves.

"It's pretty funny when they score," O'Connor said. "It's a big hoot for the guys."

The guys will be gathering at the end of September in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the wedding of Fish and his fiancée, Stacey Gardner. For those of you who follow the nation's beautiful people vicariously through the paparazzi, Gardner is a glamorous former lawyer who now opens cases of money on the television show "Deal or No Deal."

Fish's best man will be country singing star Josh Owen, and both Blake brothers and Andy Roddick will be wearing tuxedos in the wedding.

James said regardless of the outcome, "I'll still be in his wedding next month."

The J-Block, Blake's raucous cheering section from Fairfield County, Conn., may find itself conflicted. Last week, with Blake sitting out the New Haven tournament after the Olympics, the J-Block lustily cheered Fish all the way to the final, where he lost to Juan Martin Del Potro.

O'Connor, diplomatically, wouldn't predict a winner.

"It's a coin toss," he said. "On any given day, they can both beat any player."

Said Fish, "If I'm not going to win, I'd certainly love for him to win and him to do well. You know, in the third round for a place in the fourth round of the biggest tournament of the year, I think we'll probably put our friendship aside for just a couple of hours."

Thomas Blake will be watching from his brother's box, but he'll have feelings for their mutual friend on the other side of the net.

"It will be a little bit muted out there," Thomas said. "It's their job, but it's pretty hard for them to play a normal match. They've done this before, they've felt this, so that's helpful.

"In the end, anything that happens on the court is separate from their friendship. The good news is that at least one of them gets to go on."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for

Five things we learned Friday

1. Roger knows enough about Rafa: Just because he has slipped to No. 2 in the rankings, Roger Federer isn't more preoccupied with new world No. 1 Rafael Nadal's goings-on.

Federer disclosed he hasn't seen any of Nadal's opening two matches, both straight-sets affairs, including Thursday night's win over American Ryler DeHeart.

"I schedule my life around my life, not his," Federer said after downing Brazilian Thiago Alves in three unconvincing sets. "I was gone for dinner, and he decided to do it quick. I was expecting five sets. I was there for four and five, but he wasn't there anymore," he jokingly added.

Federer, seeking a fifth straight title, faces his first test of this year's Open when he meets wily Czech Radek Stepanek in the third round. Stepanek prevailed in their last encounter, on clay at the Rome Masters in May.

2. A suave Serb isn't dating a Paraguayan model: Or so Novak Djokovic says.

Published reports indicate the third-ranked Serb is seeing Paraguayan javelin thrower Leryn Franco, also a model and former beauty queen, after the two met at the Olympics in Beijing.

Djokovic denied that, as well as that Franco was in the crowd for his first-round match against Arnaud Clement.

"I'm saying that we don't have a romance like people call it already," Djokovic said. "I even heard that she's here, so it's kind of strange, because I would be the first to know, probably. We know each other, that's true, and we met, and then she came to watch my matches [at the Olympics], but there is nothing more than friendship."

According to Djokovic's PR manager, Benito Perez Barbadillo, Djokovic is still with longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic.

3. American upsets are hard to come by: All four American men in action in the afternoon session pushed their higher-ranked opponents, though none came away with a win.

Big-serving qualifier Robert Kendrick blew his chance in the opening set against Djokovic, squandering a pair of set points, and exited 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-4.

One of the set points came on his own serve at 7-6 in the tiebreak; Kendrick rallied from a 6-2 deficit.

"If I could have got that first set and maybe put it to another tiebreaker in the second set, you never know," Kendrick said. "I missed an opportunity, I think."

So did 2005 semifinalist Robby Ginepri. Ginepri lost to 30th-seeded Croat Marin Cilic, who won his first title last week, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 7-5. Ginepri failed to serve out the fourth set.

Nicolas Almagro, the No. 18 seed back from wrist surgery, hit 15 aces and upended Sam Warburg 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Olympic silver medalist Fernando Gonzalez of Chile downed Bobby Reynolds 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4.

4. Even durable Russians lose motivation: At the Olympics, Nikolay Davydenko admitted he was struggling with motivation. Compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova is sagging, too.

Kuznetsova, the champion in 2004, was sent packing in the third round by Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik, turning into an upset specialist, 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-3. The world No. 4 is a mediocre 7-5 in her past 12 matches.

"I'm not going to hide and try to go around and say tennis is fun, it's so easy, because [you] will understand it's not true," said Kuznetsova, one of the WTA Tour's most popular players. "It's tough to practice every day."

Srebotnik made headlines by downing Serena Williams in the third round of the French Open.

Davydenko, meantime, cruised into the third round with a comfortable victory over Argentine shot-maker Agustin Calleri.

5. Ivo is in a class of his own: Already leading the tour in aces, 6-foot-10 Croat Ivo Karlovic has an extended lead at the Open ahead of his third-round match with another big server, San Francisco-born Sam Querrey.

Karlovic thumped 42 aces against Frenchman Florent Serra on Thursday to take him to 70, 16 more than Luxembourg's Gilles Muller. He's been broken once in two matches and has won 90 percent of points behind his first serve.

--Ravi Ubha


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Drama queen


Jelena Jankovic swears she doesn't go looking for drama -- but it usually manages to find her.

After going three sets in her second-round match with Sofia Arvidsson, Jankovic's last game on Friday consisted of 11 deuces and five match points. With No. 5 on her racket, she stopped and caught her breath, then walked to the back of the court and wiped her wet face. Breaking into a smile, she finally served and Zheng Jie eventually hit a forehand into the net.

Jankovic, the highest remaining seed on the women's side -- No. 2 behind the departed Ana Ivanovic -- escaped with a 7-5, 7-5 victory.

Eleven deuces?

"Yeah," Jankovic said later. "I wanted to go to 20. I just couldn't make it."

As the match wound down, Jankovic's mother, Snezana, seemed to be in agony.

"I know," Jankovic said. "She told me she's under so much stress. It's so hard for her to be in the box. It's tough for her to watch this. I wish I could finish 2 and 2, but it didn't work today."

Jankovic, who fell spectacularly to the ground and stayed there for a bit in the third set against Arvidsson, denied that she enjoyed these taut moments.

"Who likes drama?" Jankovic said. "Do you know anybody that likes to get involved in tight matches where you're maybe going to go into a third set? That's just part of the sport, dealing with pressure and being in tight situations."

So far, Jankovic has been dealing in endurance. Through three matches, she's been on the court for 5 hours, 53 minutes.

Like most of the other Olympic athletes here, she's looked sluggish after playing in Beijing. She lost in the quarterfinals to Dinara Safina. With Maria Sharapova missing with an injury, Ivanovic gone and No. 3 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, a victim of Katarina Srebotnik, following her on Friday, this is an inviting opening for Jankovic.

She's never reached a Grand Slam final and this would seem to be her best chance. Chances are, going forward, there will be some more drama.

Pity, Snezana.

"I hope the next match," Jankovic. "I will try my best to make it easier for her."

--Greg Garber

Ailing Serb


No. 1 Ana Ivanovic's coach Sven Groeneveld is an upbeat guy, but even he admits that the last month has been a "nightmare" due to the nagging thumb injury whose causes are still unclear. "It's so hard for her, because she wants to compete," he said. "We had a fantastic preparation week in Mallorca before the Montreal tournament, and then on the last day, she couldn't hold the racket (Ivanovic lost in the third round of that event). Then she went to Beijing and had to pull out." Groneveld, who works with a number of adidas players, he was not shocked by Ivanovic's second round ouster at the hands of 188th-ranked Julie Coin of France despite the disparity in their stature, simply because Ivanovic's summer has been such a roller-coaster. She's scheduled to play next in Tokyo the week of Sept. 15, but Groeneveld said he wants to reassess after he's had a chance to speak with Ivanovic at length. "We cannot afford another ill-prepared tournament," he said. "We have to make a calculated decision, not an emotional decision."

--Bonnie D. Ford

Tall order


Ivo Karlovic has answered questions about his height all his life, so he finally decided to take a shortcut. The Croatian had a small company in Miami produce a shirt with a "6-10" logo on the front.

"I wasn't getting good offers from the clothing companies, so I said I was going to do something on my own," Karlovic said after advancing to the third round when his opponent, France's Florent Serra, retired in the third set of their match. It's not for sale -- but then again, it would only fit a certain number of people.

Somewhat inexplicably, Karlovic still doesn't have a clothing sponsor even though he's No. 14 in the world -- up from the netherworld below the top 100 since the beginning of 2007 -- has four ATP titles to his name and has consistently utilized his maddening serve to compete with top players over the last couple of seasons.

He'll face another vertically impressive player next in 6-foot-6 Californian Sam Querrey, who is playing some of the best tennis of his young career here.

"It's not going to be a lot of baseline rallies, but still a tough one," Querrey said.

They've met three times. Querrey won the first two on hard court last year. Karlovic prevailed on grass in Nottingham this summer, "and he had like 80 aces," Querrey said after eliminating France's Nicholas Devilder in four sets despite serious cramping issues.

Querrey admitted that he sometimes feels as if he and Karlovic should simply proceed straight to a tiebreaker rather than playing out a set because it's so hard to break Karlovic's towering serve.

"At least with his serve -- a lot guys it's up here above their shoulders," Querrey said. "With me it might be at shoulder level. But a lot of times you've just got to take a guess, almost, with him."

A third member of the Big and Tall club, Argentina's 6-5 Juan Martin Del Potro, the 17th seed, also advanced to the third round and will play 16th-seeded Gilles Simon of France.

--Bonnie D. Ford

Two and out


Vincent Spadea was busy telling anyone and everyone in the media room on Friday afternoon about his run-in with officialdom at the U.S. Open. Players only have two days worth of access to the Open grounds after losing, so Spadea, a first-round loser Tuesday and not involved in the doubles, claimed he was hassled as he tried to enter. He was promoting a paperback edition of his book, "Break Point," and eventually got the pass needed.

"It's the only reason I'm here," Spadea, known for his rapping as much as tennis nowadays, said. "I could care less about the tournament."

Spadea, 34, said players should receive more time than two days.

"That's not the way the tournament operates," U.S.T.A. spokesman Chris Widmaier said.

--Ravi Ubha

Critic's choice


No. 14 Ivo Karlovic vs. Sam Querrey: It's going a bomb-fest. The 6-foot-10 Karlovic has 70 aces in two three-set matches, averaging well over an ace per game. Querrey, the 6-6 Californian, has 28 aces. Winner gets a (very) likely matchup with Rafael Nadal. prediction: Querrey in five.

--Greg Garber