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 ESPN.com.
Five things we learned Friday
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."
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.
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.
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.
"I hope the next match," Jankovic. "I will try my best to make it easier for her."
--Bonnie D. Ford
--Bonnie D. Ford
Two and out
"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.
ESPN.com prediction: Querrey in five.