No. 1 Blake falls to Safin


WASHINGTON -- No. 1 seed James Blake threw two rackets, dropped one, and let go a wail and a scream as he struggled against former world No. 1 Marat Safin last night.

Nothing helped and the top American bowed out of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), to the No. 92-ranked Safin.

"He made it tough," said Blake. "He served big on the big points and he made a few good gets. And in the end, he got lucky, but you can't forget that he put himself in the position of being able to take advantage of the luck. It's good to see him back playing well again."

Blake became the third top seed to leave the tournament early, following No. 2 seeded Andy Roddick, who withdrew with a muscle strain before his first match, and No. 4 Andre Agassi, who was upset by a qualifier.

Now Safin, who is attempting to climb back from a knee injury to being a contender again, will face another unseeded player today in the quarterfinals, when he plays Wesley Moodie, who beat Kenneth Carlsen late last night, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6).

In other quarterfinal matches that will be played today beginning at noon, No. 3 seed Lleyton Hewitt will take on No. 11 Arnaud Clement. And No. 16 Mardy Fish will face No. 8 Andy Murray. No. 14 seed Tim Henman and Michael Gambill were also involved in a late match.

From the beginning the match between Blake and Safin was uncomfortable. First the heat was sweltering, then a thunderstorm blew in - just when Blake had his first break point chance. Then a second storm came through. It was more than two hours before play resumed.

"Well, it was annoying," Safin said. "They tell you you'll be back on court in half an hour, then another half hour. Then 10 minutes, then another 20 ... "

Blake earned the break point, but gave the advantage back in his very next service game.

Blake, much like Agassi on Tuesday night, never found his rhythm and Safin played like a man with amnesia, suspecting he knew how to be great but unable to remember consistently exactly how to do it. But he did it enough.

Safin was No. 1 in 2000, after beating Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open behind his monster serve. Last night the Russian gave a demonstration of what that serve is like when it's right, walloping a 142-mph ace to finish off the fifth game in the first set.

And he used the serve again and again to wrap up his service games. Still, Blake hung tough and forced the first set to a tiebreak. There, he forged ahead, 4-2, only to give the advantage back. Several erratic forehands and a double fault later, and Blake was facing set point. Safin put his own backhand return into the net for 6-6, but won the next two points. Blake challenged a line call, but lost at 7-6 and then hit his forehand wide to give Safin the first set.

"My game goes the way my forehand goes," he said. "When it's off I'm sometimes very easy to beat. But I competed well tonight."

Safin had the advantage in the second set by the end of the third game, with a 2-1 lead that drew a wail from Blake, when another forehand went wide. Minutes later Blake was again in distress, tossing his racket, at 30-15 on Safin's serve, but recovered to win back the break and even the set, 2-2 and ran off another two games for a 4-2 lead before Safin came back.

At last they reached another tiebreak. It was the beginning of the end.

Safin took a 6-3 lead, and though he was shaky, double faulting on his first match point, and putting his own forehand in the net on the second, he got the job done on the third - with a little bit of luck. He hit a net cord that bounced high over Blake's racket and landed just on the baseline to put both men out of their misery.

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