Agassi-Blake quarterfinal a compelling matchup

9/5/2005 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- On Monday, ageless Andre Agassi scuffled and shuffled his way into the 34th Grand Slam quarterfinal of his career. About three hours later, James Blake arrived dramatically in his very first.

At the U.S. Open, Agassi dispatched Xavier Malisse 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2, while Blake took out No. 19 seed Tommy Robredo 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.

For Agassi and Blake, both matches were very much in doubt, and afterward it was impossible to gauge who was happier.

"In every match I play, I grow in my appreciation for this opportunity, this chance to be out there playing at the U.S. Open for another match, another time," Agassi said. "It's a great feeling for me."

"I know I'm not in a Hollywood script, otherwise I probably would have won a lot more this year," Blake said. "I've always known I had a chance to go deep in a major or go and win a tournament and play with these guys because I can put together a good set here, a good match there.

"I don't think of it as fate or anything. I think it's a lot of hard work."

And so, two Americans will meet in a Wednesday night quarterfinal match that will have Arthur Ashe Stadium in a complete uproar. It will send Agassi, at 35, entering the beloved Jimmy Connors twilight of his career, against ascendant James Blake, 10 years his junior, a hometown hero who has overcome a ghastly patch of misfortune.

Late Monday, Robby Ginepri made it three Americans in the quarterfinals. The 22-year-old from Marietta, Ga., upset No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet in five sets, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-0 and will play No. 8 seed Guillermo Coria, who was a winner over Nicolas Massu.

Agassi, in historical terms, is only a marginally bigger story.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion becomes only the fourth man 35 or older to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals in the Open Era, joining Pancho Gonzalez (1968), Ken Rosewall (1970, 1973-74) and Connors (1987-89 and 1991). Agassi is playing in his 20th U.S. Open and ran his victory total here to 75 -- both totals rank second on the all-time list behind Connors, who played in 22 and won a staggering 98 matches.

Blake, meanwhile, helped himself to a healthy slice of history, too. He is the first African-American male to reach the quarterfinals here since Rodney Harmon did it in 1982. Blake was 2 years old at the time.

"Really?" Blake said, when told of the milestone. "I didn't know that."

And then he beamed.

Blake is only the second wildcard in U.S. Open history to reach the quarterfinals. Naturally, Connors was the first, in 1991. Blake has now won 10 straight matches -- six in taking the second title of his career a week ago at New Haven -- for the first time.

There were few people who imagined Agassi would have any difficulty getting to the quarterfinals -- unfortunately for Agassi, one of them was Malisse. The Belgian is a solid player whose talent can sometimes approach dazzling.

For two sets, Malisse was not even remotely dazzling. In fact, when Agassi won the second set he officially became a lock for the match. In 57 previous U.S. Open matches, he had never lost after leading by two sets.

Agassi had Malisse against the wall, facing a break point at 5-all in the third set.

"I covered the middle serve, hit it firm, hit it well," Agassi said. "Just hit the tape. You have that shot again, you break and it's a straight-set match."

Instead, Malisse was given a small opening -- and he climbed right through. He leveled the match at two sets apiece and, suddenly, people started to wonder about the condition of the sciatic nerve in Agassi's back.

That question was answered, emphatically, with Agassi serving with a 4-2 lead in the fifth. He served three straight aces, followed by an unreturnable serve.

"Even a blind dog can find a bone every now and then," observed Agassi.

Afterward, Agassi said he was feeling no pain.

"It makes me feel great I can play three sets without that," he said. "That's certainly a good indication that everything's holding up. But I'll keep my fingers crossed. I play by different rules now. My body plays by different rules. I need to listen to it."

For Blake, the story just keeps getting better and better.

In a span of five weeks in 2004, he broke his neck when he ran into a net post in Rome, suffered the loss of his father Thomas to cancer and contracted a virus that paralyzed part of his face, left his vision blurred and caused debilitating dizziness. His ranking plummeted to No. 210 back in April, but he has rallied famously. In the third round, he stunned No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal -- the first time he has ever beaten a top 10 player in a Grand Slam -- in the biggest match of his life

In fact, Blake has been so successful in the last two weeks that there were whispers from the locker room that he was physically and emotionally spent, that the effort to play and win nine matches in two weeks might have taken too much out of him.

Sure enough, there was a big letdown against Robredo. He was in a pretty deep hole, down a set and serving at 2-5 with a break point -- a set point -- against him.

"The toughest part about playing these matches is not getting ahead of myself when I get ahead," Blake said later. "And if I get down, not just kind of throwing in the towel, being so down on myself.

"You've got to keep moving for it. Being down a set and a break doesn't mean anything."

Blake hit a volley winner and won the last five games of the set. And then, buoyed by his raucous fans, the "J-Block," and a stadium full of support, Blake ran away from the Spaniard.

Agassi is a legend, a philanthropist, a man who has inspired applause as he travels the world. Blake, who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and raised in Fairfield, Conn., learned to play tennis at the Harlem Junior Tennis League. When they step onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, whom will the crowd favor?

"James is an easy guy to like and he's an easy guy to root for," Agassi said. "If he's getting the better of me, I couldn't wish it for a better person. You know, he deserves the support."

Said Blake, "He's really a true gentleman, one of the friendliest guys in the locker room. That's something that's impressive when you don't need to do that because you're one of the legends of the sport. You've got everything you can ever dream of, but he still knows how to treat people.

"He's been my biggest win in my career so far [Washington, 2002]. Hopefully, it will be again. I don't feel like he's going to be nervous. I don't think I'll be nervous, either, because I know I've got nothing to lose."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.