Blake survives Santoro, wins first career five-set match

NEW YORK -- No matter the setting, no matter how well he played, James Blake simply couldn't figure out how to win a fifth set.

Until now.

And when he finally prevailed in a match that went the distance, ending an 0-for-9 drought, Blake was too exhausted to celebrate wildly, instead simply raising his arms in the air and slowly walking to the net for a sweat-soaked -- and sweet -- embrace with his opponent.

The No. 6-seeded Blake outlasted Fabrice Santoro 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the second round of the U.S. Open to win a 3-hour, 25-minute struggle that began Thursday evening and ended after midnight Friday.

"There used to be a big monkey right there," Blake said, pointing to his back, "and now it's gone. I got the monkey off my back. I got a five-setter."

Santoro, at 34 the oldest man left in the tournament, faded down the stretch. At 4-4 in the fifth, he held three break points -- and Blake saved them all. Then, in the final game, Santoro led 30-love on his serve -- and Blake took the final four points.

"To the last point, I thought I had a good chance,'' Santoro said. "He was tired, but I was for sure more tired."

He sat with an old-fashioned icebag perched atop his head while a trainer massaged his left foot and both thighs in the final set. Santoro asked for a medical timeout in the middle of a game after double-faulting. Later, he opted not to sit at all during changeovers, worried about cramping.

Blake is seven years younger and was far fresher, even clear-minded enough to switch hands for a lefty shot that helped win a point.

"I actually, honestly said to myself at the beginning of the fifth set: 'I'm going to win this match,'" Blake said. "The whole five-set jinx never got into my head. But this time, I said, 'I'm not going to let it happen.'"

And he did not, breaking in the final game with a cross-court backhand winner that Santoro could only toss his racket at. Blake left his racket on the ground, too, and they met at the net.

Blake put his arm around Santoro and told him, "You played so hard."

"He told me it's amazing what I'm doing at my age," Santoro said. "I said, 'Thanks, my son.'"

Blake's U.S. Davis Cup teammate and poker pal, No. 5 Andy Roddick, advanced earlier Thursday when his opponent quit with a knee injury, and defending women's champion Maria Sharapova won in 51 minutes.

Then came as entertaining a match as this year's Open has produced. Blake and Santoro applauded the other's winners. Santoro playfully stuck out his tongue when Blake produced a great drop shot.

"I would love to play for two more hours," Santoro said, "because I had a lot of fun tonight."

There was wonderful shotmaking by both -- but particularly by Santoro, his game filled with dinks and lobs, mixing in all sorts of spins and angles while hitting two-fisted off both wings. His play was as colorful as his polo shirt's thin pastel stripes of pink, yellow and lime, and he finished with only 21 unforced errors -- to Blake's 71.

"He makes everyone he plays angry," Blake said. "You've got to be ready for everything against Fabrice. Luckily I came out on top today."

After one superb 18-stroke exchange in the third set, Santoro leaned over a sideline wall, and a fan ran down a few stadium steps to offer an encouraging slap on the back.

Blake's game is more about court coverage and powerful forehands, and he's always had his most success on hard courts, including reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals each of the last two years.

Three of Blake's previous fifth-set flops came at Flushing Meadows, including against Andre Agassi in 2005.

"I've had so many close ones here -- so many little things not going my way," Blake said.

This time, though, he wound up with a 83-39 edge in winners.

Santoro's claims to fame are his creativity and his longevity. This was his 61st Grand Slam tournament, tying Agassi's career record -- but he only has one quarterfinal appearance. And this was his 16th U.S. Open, most among players in the draw.

The record for that? Jimmy Connors played in 22 U.S. Opens. One of those was in 1991, when he made a stirring run to the semifinals at age 39.

Roddick was 9, and thrilled to be on the scene as a birthday treat, something he got to do a couple times as a kid.

"I'd get here for the first match, and I wouldn't leave 'til it was over. Those are probably my fondest memories, just sneaking into the nosebleed sections," Roddick recalled. "I actually snuck into the players' lounge one time and stole a cheesecake."

He still comes to Flushing Meadows at birthday time, nowadays as a competitor -- and with a certain James Scott Connors tagging along as his coach.

Roddick turned 25 on Thursday and marked the occasion by reaching the U.S. Open's third round, although not before losing the opening set against Jose Acasuso of Argentina. But Acasuso eventually succumbed to injury.

"That's the good thing about Grand Slams: You get in the grind, and whoever doesn't mind the grind wins," Connors said after watching the match through silver wraparound sunglasses. "The way Andy played today, especially in the second and third sets, is always good. As long as he's playing the right kind of tennis, that's all that counts."

Although Acasuso had taken the first set, former champion Roddick looked in command, leading 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 when the Argentine decided to quit.

World No. 70 Acasuso startled Roddick early on but after the American hit back to level, the Argentine had his left knee strapped.

Roddick took advantage by cruising through the third set and, after consulting the trainer again, Acasuso decided he could not continue.

"It's unfortunate Jose hurt his knee. I though he played a very good first set," Roddick said. "It's not the way you want to get through but at the beginning of the day all you want to do is get through to the third round.

"I felt like I started playing a lot better in the second set so hopefully I can carry that through into the next round," he said.

Roddick, runner-up to Roger Federer here last year, next plays former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson of Sweden, who beat Frenchman Arnaud Clement 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (9), 7-6 (1).

Roddick said there may be more life in the men's draw than usual since several potential challengers to Federer's title were in form.

"I feel like some of the top guys, like James and Novak [Djokovic] are hitting their stride at the right time, which is giving people maybe a little more to talk about," said Roddick.

The fifth seed was not entirely satisfied with the manner of his victory.

"I don't think you like winning matches like that," said the 2003 champion. "Especially since I felt like I was starting to play OK.

"But at the end of the day your goal is to get through," he said.

Donald Young of the United States moved into the third round of the U.S. Open on a walkover when No. 13-seeded Richard Gasquet of France withdrew because of a fever and a sore throat.

"With my illness, I'm sure I can't win this match," Gasquet said. "I am really, really disappointed because it's an important tournament for me."

Young, the 18-year-old Wimbledon junior champion, will now meet Feliciano Lopez, who beat Igor Andreev of Russia 6-7 (3), 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), for a spot in the fourth round. Young never had won a Grand Slam match until beating Chris Guccione of Australia in the first round.

"Prefer to win it," Young said after hearing of Gasquet's withdrawal, "but I'll take this."

Roddick, among others, was surprised.

"I feel like that's a short-term thing. I'd probably go out there and give it a go," Roddick said. "My biggest thing with playing matches versus not playing matches is if you're risking long-term -- if it's going to affect you longer than just that day or a week or two down the road."

Andy Murray continued his recovery from a wrist injury by scrapping his way to a 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 victory over veteran Swede Jonas Bjorkman in the second round.

Murray, the 19th-seeded Scot who returned earlier this month after 12 weeks out, needed 3 hours, 37 minutes and 16 aces to clinch a meeting with Hyung-Taik Lee of South Korea, who upset 14th-seeded Argentine Guillermo Canas 7-5, 7-5, 6-3.

"This was great for me," Murray said. "Obviously you don't want to play too many five-setters in a Grand Slam early on. [But] in terms of the position I've been in, having hardly played for the last five months, to play a match like that and come through, it is great for your confidence."

Bjorkman, 35, the oldest man in the draw, took the first set before Murray, varying his pace well, rallied to take the second and third.

The Swede, a semifinalist in 1997, snatched the fourth with his third break of the set but Murray broke three times in the decider to seal an energy-sapping victory.

In his 12 weeks off the tour, which meant he missed the French Open and Wimbledon, Murray spent a lot of time in the gym. That work, he said, paid dividends when he outlasted Bjorkman in the final set.

"You just feel like the hard work you put in when you were hurt is worthwhile," said Murray. "It was really, really hot out there as well.

"I could have got down on myself when I went a break down in the second set but I managed to come back well. I was really happy with that," he said.

Murray beat Lee in their only previous meeting, in San Jose, winning a final-set tiebreak on his way to the title.

"He is a really good player, very consistent," Murray said. "He does everything well, doesn't do anything unbelievable, but he's in really good shape.

"He's got a good serve. Forehand, backhand is good. He moves well. It's going to be a hard match," he said.

The buzz was already starting around the grounds for a third-round encounter still 48 hours away: No. 1 Federer against 6-foot-9 American wild card John Isner.

Roddick provided a scouting report.

"Isner's going to be very tall," he said, "and Roger's going to be very good."

In other action, No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko beat Nicolas Kiefer 6-2, 6-2, 6-2; No. 9 Tomas Berdych defeated Simone Bolelli 7-5, 6-3, 6-3; No. 10 Tommy Haas beat Philipp Petzschner 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5; No. 28 Nicolas Almagro won 6-4, 6-2, 2-1 when Luis Horna retired; Sebastien Grosjean beat Max Mirnyi 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-3; and Fernando Verdasco beat Gilles Simon 6-0, 6-4, 6-3.

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