Blake gives Hewitt brief opening
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- A year ago, James Blake found himself in uncharted territory here and, quite frankly, he played that way.
On Saturday, a year to the day after his memorable encounter with Hewitt, there was Blake again contemplating a fifth and ultimate set. He felt confident; during the winter he had made himself stronger -- mentally and physically. His strokes were bigger, bolder.
But while Blake's swift ascent up the ladder of professional tennis has been well-documented, Hewitt's game has blossomed, as well. The Australian is only 21 years old and already has won two Grand Slams, and now he has a more powerful serve to go with his hustling, all-court game.
Intensity, however, is Hewitt's calling card. In the fifth set against Blake, his fierce concentration never flagged, but -- for a flurry of 11 points -- Blake's did. And that was enough to give the world's No. 1-ranked player a five-set victory, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
"I play each game sort of on its merits, I guess," Hewitt said, speaking of the fifth set. "I know it's sudden death. I think I'm obviously in pretty good shape. Mentally, I'm as tough as anyone, I guess, on the Tour. I think those two are probably the biggest factors."
Predictably, Blake said he was disappointed.
"I wanted to show how far I'd come in a year, playing the same guy at the same tournament," he said. "But he's come a long way, too. He's improved a lot of things."
It was billed as a heavyweight match but, unlike so many Mike Tyson vehicles, it delivered. For three hours and 34 minutes, the two athletes traded savage body shots.
While Hewitt is the game's fastest player -- maybe ever -- Blake might be next in line, so court coverage was not an issue. But Hewitt's ability to run down balls puts pressure on his opponents, who as a result tend to go for too much and make copious unforced errors. Blake's style seemed to play into that mode of attack. His forehand is one of the biggest in the game and he likes to rip it. In their two matches since last year's Open, in Tokyo and Miami, Hewitt won in straight sets but came away impressed with Blake's evolving game.
Heading into Saturday's match, the overriding question was, could Blake temper his aggressive game and stay in points long enough to end points with timely forehands?
The answer, in the first set at least, was yes.
Down 5-2 in the tiebreaker, Blake won the last five points with timely winners. On the last, he chased after Hewitt's attempted lob and jumped for joy when it sailed past the baseline.
Hewitt broke Blake in the sixth game of the second set, punctuating the 17-point game with a running forehand winner and his first, fist-pumping, bellowing "Come on!" It was an important breakthrough for Hewitt, who was playing in a jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium that was largely pulling for Blake, who is from nearby Yonkers.
"I went out there with the same attitude I've taken into Davis Cup matches," Hewitt said. "I really felt that in my head I just got it in that I was playing for Australia out there. That was my whole mindset. When I felt like getting fired up, looking over to my bench, I tried to use all my positive energy when I needed to."
Hewitt served out the set and repeated the process in the third set; the only difference was he broke Blake in the third game. At that point, it looked like Blake would fold just as he had a year ago. He was broken again in the fourth set's third game on a spectacular, lunging stab volley by Hewitt, but he did something in the next game that had eluded him the entire match. He broke Hewitt, who sent a nervous forehand into the net to make it 2-all. It happened again in the eighth game when Hewitt, with characteristic hubris, went for a second serve and missed. That gave Blake the set and an opportunity for redemption.
Hewitt seemed to regain an equilibrium at 2-all, serving a love game. And then Blake, who attended Harvard, but has been criticized for brief lulls in concentration, briefly checked out. Hewitt broke him at love with a forehand winner down the line and built his lead to 5-2.
"I felt like if I could have got a bit of a start in one of his service games, the opportunity was there," Hewitt explained. "That's when I was going to try to nail it down and take it. I was able to step it up, sort of raise the bar a little bit."
To say the least. In a stretch over three games when it mattered most, Hewitt won 11 points in a row.
"It was a really loose game," said Blake, referring to the sixth game. "That's unfortunate. That's the difference in the match, one loose game I played. That's happened to me a few times before, a hard-fought, long match comes down to one game. That's something I'm learning more and more.
"He fatigues you, mentally. It makes you go for shots you might not have gone for because of his quickness and how many balls he retrieves.
"It's really frustrating because that's something that's mental."
Blake saved two match points at 3-5, but Hewitt blistered an ace into the outside corner and survived what might be his toughest match until at least the semifinals. If the seeds hold, Hewitt's next two opponents would be the hardly intimidating Jiri Novak and Younes El Aynaoui. Andre Agassi looms as the semifinal opponent.
In the end, Blake was caught overplaying his forehand. By protecting a mediocre backhand, he opened up the court for Hewitt, who took advantage. The fact that Blake committed a staggering 86 unforced errors, compared to just 40 for Hewitt, underlined how well he played. Hewitt, for his part, was only broken twice despite hitting on only 50 percent of his first serves.
It was a tribute to the sportsmanship demonstrated by both players -- they often applauded each other's shots -- that the charged 2001 incident that loomed over this rematch never came into play. It was almost as if the two players were consciously trying to avoid tension after Hewitt made a remark about an African-American lineman that was perceived by some to be racially motivated.
There were a number of hostile comments from the crowd directed at Hewitt during the match, but he claimed later he was concentrating too hard to hear them.
"It's good for the game of tennis," Blake said. "I think the way we conducted ourselves, you know, I really like the fact that if any kid was watching that they could say, 'I want to be like either one of those guys.'
"We both laid it on the line. We fought our hearts out. He came up with great shots, I came up with great shots. He came up with a few more."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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