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Blake shocks Nadal with four-set victory

9/4/2005 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Misfortune's victim for so long, James Blake
punctuated the Hollywood-like turnaround of his life and career by
upsetting French Open champion Rafael Nadal on Saturday at the U.S.
Open.

Blake, who sank to No. 210 in the rankings last spring and
needed a wild-card invitation to get into the Open, knocked off the
No. 2 Nadal, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, as cheers, mixed with more than a
few tears, cascaded down from his friends in packed Arthur Ashe
Stadium.

"I need a new vocabulary to describe how I felt about that
match," Blake's mother, Betty, said. "This time last year he was
half-paralyzed and watching this on TV and wondering if he'd ever
play tennis again. How good is that? It's like you can't describe
how good that is. To see him smile the way he did is wonderful for
a mom. He was pretty down last year and trying to hold it all in
and keep it away from me because I was grief stricken at the time,
too."

Blake was overwhelmed by the constant cheers of his buddies --
"The James Block" -- and the more than 20,000 fans in the stadium,
who gave him a long, warm ovation at the end.

"I truly wish every single person in here could have the
feeling I have now," he told them.

If it wasn't the biggest win of the 25-year-old Blake's career --
in his mind nothing will ever top his victory over Andre Agassi
three years ago en route to his first tour title in Washington -- it
put him into the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time,
matched his best-ever performances in Grand Slam events and set him
up for a possible quarterfinal confrontation against Agassi.

Agassi, seeded No. 7, had a tough time against No. 32 Tomas
Berdych but reached the fourth round with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (2)
victory.

Robby Ginepri continued the big day for American men by winning
just his third career five-set match 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 2-6,
6-3 in a marathon 3 hour, 20 minute effort against No. 29 Tommy
Haas of Germany. He advanced to face No. 13 Richard Gasquet of
France, who rallied past No. 18 Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, 3-6,
7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-9), 6-3, 6-2.

Also, Nicolas Massu of Chile, a double gold medalist at last
year's Olympics, routed Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, 6-4,
6-3, 6-0, to reach the fourth round.

Massu, who had advanced to the third round in a walkover when
Czech Jiri Novak withdrew with an injury, awaits No. 8 Guillermo
Coria of Argentina, who beat Swede Robin Soderling, 6-2, 6-7
(4-7), 6-1, 6-4.

But Blake's big upset was the story of the day.

"If someone had told me a year ago that I'd have to go out and
lose love, love and love in the quarterfinals of the Open to Andre
Agassi, I'd say, I'd take it in a heartbeat," Blake said. "If
that happens, so be it. I'm going to go out there and play the same
way I've been playing, not be afraid. Today I was not afraid to
play Rafael Nadal. I will not be afraid to play Andre."

The match between Blake and Nadal, two of the speediest players
in tennis, gyrated around brilliant shots by each of them in the
first two sets. One moment, Blake scurried to catch up to balls
that seemed out of reach, the next moment Nadal did the same.

Everything changed on two astonishing points that Blake won, the
first on a running lob that he flicked crosscourt into the corner
to break Nadal in the third set for a 3-2 lead, the second a series
of shots that broke Nadal for the set and crushed the Spaniard's
spirit.
On that set-winning point, Blake lofted a lob that Nadal
unbelievably ran down with his back to the net as he skidded into
the wall behind the baseline. Blake smashed the ball from midcourt,
seemingly putting it away, but Nadal caught up to that one, too,
with a leaping backhand. Once more, Blake let loose a smash, this
time sending the ball into the front row of the stands, the only
place Nadal couldn't reach it.

"I don't know how many winners I hit today, but whatever it is,
you can double it, because that's how many winners I would have hit
against other players," said Blake, who was credited with 53 to
Nadal's 29. "I felt like I had to hit two winners at least to win
each point."

Nadal, the winner of nine tournaments this year and usually so
cocky, sagged and never recovered as Blake steamrolled him in the
fourth set.

"I lost confidence," said the 19-year-old Nadal, who proved he
could win on hard courts when he captured his first title on the
surface in Montreal last month, beating Agassi in the final.

To anyone familiar with Blake's story of tragedy and
perseverance -- and that included his many friends and family and
virtually everyone else in the stadium -- the sight of him taking
down the best young player on the tour was as emotional as it gets.

Only 16 months ago, Blake didn't know if he would ever play tennis
again after he fractured vertebrae in his neck when he crashed into
a net post during practice in Rome. Yet, ever positive, he spun
that bad luck around and said it was the best thing that happened
to him because it allowed him to spend time with father, Tom, who
was dying of cancer. His father died in July last year.

A week later, Blake contracted shingles, which temporarily
paralyzed his face and caused vision and hearing problems. Again he
tried to look on the bright side, wondering what he would do with
his life if his athletic career were to end. It was an attitude
that had served him well when he was 13 and was diagnosed with
scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine, which forced him to
wear a back brace 18 hours a day.

Just as he has worked hard to be an athlete since his teens, and
worked hard in school to get into Harvard, Blake pushed himself
this year to play better than he ever had. Once ranked as high as
No. 22 in 2003, he climbed from his low of 210 up to 49 in the
rankings just before the Open when he won in New Haven, near his
hometown of Fairfield, Conn., for his second career title and first
in three years.

Blake's coach since he was 9 years old, Brian Baker, considered
Saturday's win his biggest -- "beating someone as good as Rafael
Nadal at the U.S. Open, center court, in front of all his family
and friends."

"After going through what he went through last year, nothing is
that big a deal to him," Baker said. "I think now he respects
that it's important to win a tennis match, but it's really a small
part of his life."

Information from The Associated Press and SportsTicker was used in this report.