U.S. Open Showdown: Agassi v. Blake

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Down 2-5 in the second set to Spain's Tommy Robredo yesterday, James Blake's U.S. Open romp appeared over. Robredo had already won the first set, and Blake, the man who outran the quickest tennis player on earth, Rafael Nadal, in a stunning upset on Saturday, had clay feet on the hard court surface. Blake's best shot, a blazing forehand, was a tad slow. Even his rowdy cheering section in Suite 236 of Arthur Ashe Stadium, clad in baby-blue t-shirts and self-dubbed the "J-Block," seemed a bit deflated.

He would still be an inspiring story. The unseeded Blake, 25, who last year broke his neck after slamming his head into a the metal net post in Rome, lost his father, Thomas, to cancer, and contracted a stress-triggered virus that paralyzed his face, had made it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open, upsetting the second-ranked player in the world, Nadal, along the way.

But suddenly the weakest part Blake's game, his backhand, starting smoking. Robredo tightened, serving double faults and whacking balls into the stands. Arthur Ashe started sounding like a football stadium, the J-Block leading chants of "Blake! Blake! Blake!" Blake took five straight games to take the second set, 7-5, then cruised, 6-2, 6-3, to cap off the comeback. As Robredo's final shot sailed long, Blake dropped his racquet and cupped his hands on his head in disbelief. Says Blake: "I guess I remembered how to play."

Remember American men's tennis? When Andy Roddick lost to unseeded Luxembourgian Gilles Muller in the first round of this year's U.S. Open, critics decried the lack of hometown talent. Was a fading Andre Agassi, 35, all the U.S. had? Did the country really have to count on Taylor Dent? But Blake's stunning run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals has fulfilled an American dream: Blake vs. Agassi, center court on Wednesday night, the most anticipated American vs. American match since 2001, when Pete Sampras beat Agassi in an Open quarterfinal.

Roddick and his grating mojo can go party all night. Either Agassi, playing in his 20th, and given his brittle back, possible final Open, or the underdog Blake will slide into the semifinals. And with a pair of solid but not scary opponents, the 8th-seeded Guillermo Coria, of Argentina, or yet another American underdog, 46th-ranked Robby Ginepri, waiting as potential semifinal foes, a path to the final is clear (though defending champ Roger Federer, who looks like he'll lose his next match at the '11 French Open, lurks on the other side of the draw).

As a kid Blake, who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., a lob shot away from Ashe Stadium, and grew up in suburban Fairfield County, Connecticut, idolized Agassi. He first saw him play at the U.S Open some 15 years ago during Agassi's mullet and earring years. "I saw him here back when he had those lime green shorts hanging out of the denim shorts," Blake says. "I think I got a pair of the denim ones. Not the lime green ones—I couldn't pull that off." Even after beating Nadal, Blake still considers a 2002 win over Agassi at a Washington, D.C. tournament the highlight of his career.

Can Blake duplicate it? Agassi looks healthy and on his game, but even his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, wonders if the eight-time Grand Slam winner can recover from yesterday's three-hour, five-set match against Belgian Xavier Malisse to keep up with Blake, one of the most athletic players on tour. "We're in uncharted waters," Reyes admits. If Agassi's agility fails him, maybe he can rely on a big serve, a surprising ally against Malisse. Up 4-2 in the fifth set, Agassi dealt himself a winning hand: ace, ace, ace. Match over. Says Agassi: "Even a blind dog finds a bone every now and again."

One advantage Blake will hold is the crowd. Agassi, the Open champ in 1994 and 1999, is a favorite, but Blake is the story of the tournament. And there's no show on tour like the J-Block, 20 or so of Blake's lifelong friends who stuck with him through the worst eight months of his life. "You can see James glancing up at us—he feeds off our energy, big time," says Andy Jorgensen, 40, one of Blake's childhood tennis teachers, celebrating in Suite 236 after the match. "And you can see the other guy look up at us too—he always knows we're here." Blake cherishes the support. "You know, right after the match, just to look up to my box, look at my friends and think about how much they've helped me get to where I am, it doesn't seem real," he says. "I want to give back to them so much, I want them to experience this happiness. I just wouldn't have expected it this soon."