James Blake loses in U.S. Open tuneup

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- What do threatened rainouts, unpronounceable names and a food court that includes French crepes signify? Tennis, and the Pilot Pen tournament has been host for years to players who needed to tune up their game before the U.S. Open.

This is the week for New York area tennis fans to get close to some of the world's best players before the throngs pour into Flushing. Not only is the Pilot Pen this week, featuring the best crop of players, but the Bronx Open in Crotona Park offers free admission. Those who want to hit the U.S. Open venue itself can watch the USTA's men's and women's qualifying tournaments, also for free.

The Pilot Pen lost a big draw Wednesday when Fairfield, Conn., native James Blake, now ranked No. 111, lost to Alexandr Dolgopolov in an hour and three minutes, 6-4, 6-2. It was a match that began just before the rain Tuesday night, and Blake won his first service game before it was called for the night. When they resumed Wednesday morning, Blake wasn't as sharp.

Dinara Safina, a wild card, continued her return from a stress fracture and ruptured muscle in her back with a win over Daniela Hantuchova, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2).

Safina said she chose the tournament because she needs the matches, not just for the U.S. Open next week, but for farther down the road.

"I'm trying to do things better than I did yesterday," Safina said. "I don't know how far I can go."

That's the reason players have chosen the Pilot Pen in the past. If you're playing at your peak, resting the week before a major is a sound strategy. If not, you need to prepare for the competition.

Many of the winners from these tournaments have gone on to play well at the Open, which is the real goal. The U.S. Open starts Aug. 30.

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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