Blake captures first ATP title


WASHINGTON-- If James Blake can arrange it, tennis coach Brian Barker might have to miss his student's matches more often.

With Barker attending his sister's wedding, the sixth-seeded Blake battled temperatures in the upper 90s and No. 14 seed Paradorn Srichaphan to claim a 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center yesterday.

Blake, who earned $111,600 with his first ATP singles title, joked about Barker's absence.

"This is the first match he has missed in a while, so he may be taking a longer vacation," said Blake, a 22-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y., who is ranked 32nd in the world.

There's no joking about what Blake, a former Harvard player who learned to play tennis at public clinics in Harlem, has accomplished here. Blake became the fourth African-American player to win an ATP singles title in the Open era and also the first African-American to win the Washington event since the late Arthur Ashe in 1973.

"Any time I'm put in the same sentence with Arthur Ashe is very special to me," said Blake, who pursued the sport after listening to Ashe at the Harlem Junior Tennis Program. "I never thought that this would be possible. I'm proud to say that he was always my role model."

Blake, who became the ATP's ninth first-time winner this year, had not dropped a set in four matches this week --including an upset of tournament five-time champion Andre Agassi -- but quickly ran into trouble against Srichaphan.

Armed with a 1-0 lead, Srichaphan -- the highest-ranked Asian player at No. 54 -- capitalized on three unforced errors by Blake to break his serve and take a 2-0 lead. Srichaphan broke Blake again in the sixth game, taking advantage of three more unforced errors to enjoy a 5-1 lead.

Srichaphan, who clinched the first set with a 131-mph serve that Blake could only bunt into the net, won 31 of the 49 points in that frame.

"I was really comfortable in the first set," said Srichaphan, who had 19 more unforced errors for the match than Blake's 26. "I was hitting the ball well and moving him around. ... [But] he came back strong in the second and third sets. "

After getting steamrolled in the first set, Blake decided to serve and volley to pressure Srichiphan.

"I tried to mix it up," said Blake, who won 27 of 47 trips to the net. "When you lose a set 6-1, you can't stick with what you're doing. I had to change it up a little bit."

In the sixth game of the second set, Srichiphan was broken when his attempt to hit a passing shot between his legs fell harmlessly into the net. But with Blake serving for the set, Srichaphan returned the favor with two straight cross-court passing shots that handcuffed Blake.

Srichaphan owned a 3-1 lead in the tiebreak, but Blake won six of the next eight points, including a big first serve that Srichaphan hit past the baseline to seal the second set.

In the fifth game of the third set, the two battled to deuce five times. Then Srichaphan's backhand passing shot hit the tape and fell wide of the right sideline and Blake nailed a forehand volley winner to register the only break he would need.

"Once we got to a couple of deuces, I wanted to fight for it," he said. "I didn't want to let any loose points go and just give him that game because it could've done something for his confidence. So when I got that, it was a huge relief."

When Srichaphan's backhand return sailed long on match point, Blake -- now 3-0 against Srichaphan -- realized he could collect on a few bets he made.

First, his father, Tom, must shave his beard, which he has maintained before Blake, 22, was born. Second, agent Carlos Fleming must go sky diving with Blake. And third, Barker can choose either having his head shaved or going sky diving with Blake.

Blake said he will pay up, too, but it may take some time.

"I haven't decided what to do yet," he said with a grin.

Notes: Second seed Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett needed three sets to defeat No. 3 seed Bob and Mike Bryan, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, for the doubles title.

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