James Blake's memory of winning his first major tennis title is a high-speed blur of euphoria -- a whirlwind of joy that erupted at Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic in 2002 with family and friends on hand, and every achievement he had ever dreamt of seemingly within arm's reach.
Last night, after he dismissed his third seeded player this week to advance to the tournament's final for the second time in four years, Blake vowed to savor the experience this time around -- win or lose -- a bit more.
"I'm definitely going to savor this -- just to be back," said Blake, who'll face good friend and top seed Andy Roddick in today's final. "Hopefully, I'll be back in many more finals. But you never know. I'm going to go out and enjoy it with no pressure, knowing that I'll have fond memories of Washington -- not just for winning here in 2002 but for having a great run this year."
Blake's march through Washington's annual hard-court event has thrilled his fans, buoyed his confidence and is sure to boost him into the sport's top 100, where his resume and skills attest he belongs. En route to the final, Blake toppled the tournament's fourth seed, Radek Stepanek; its 16th seed, Tomas Zib; and 10th seed, Tomas Berdych, whom he dismissed in yesterday's semifinals, 6-4, 6-3.
Earlier in the day Roddick swept into the final with a 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 victory over Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, 26, brandishing his most dazzling serves yet in the tournament. Afterward Roddick spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of facing Blake, his frequent hitting partner.
"I cheer James," said Roddick, 22, the Legg Mason's 2001 champion. "He's one of the good guys on tour. I always want the best for him. That being said, I'd want to beat him badly tomorrow."
It will be the first all-American final at the Legg Mason since 1990, when Andre Agassi defeated Jim Grabb.
Washington fans have found it easy to root for the Harvard-educated Blake since he won the Legg Mason in 2002. And his battle to reclaim his place in the game, after injury and illness sent him tumbling from a career-high ranking of 22nd (in May 2003) to 210th (in April), has made him even easier to admire.
For Blake, the hardships of the last 15 months have made him a more appreciative person, he says, with a better perspective on both life and sports. Broken neck vertebrae in May 2004 knocked him out of the game's elite ranks. He later lost his father to stomach cancer, and developed a debilitating case of shingles that hampered his vision and hearing.
Blake's showing this week should go a long way toward his goal of proving that his sole ATP Tour title (August 2002) and his career-high ranking weren't flukes. It should also bring an end to the humbling process of having to rely on wild cards or slog through qualifying to earn berths in tour events.
Said Roddick: "His surge up the rankings doesn't really surprise me because he dropped out because of unfortunate circumstances. I just view him as playing his way back to where he belongs."
In yesterday's first semifinal, Roddick delivered a near-flawless serving performance that included 13 aces (one of which was clocked at 141 mph) and no double faults. He lost only four points on his serve and never faced a break point.
"I feel like I'm in a groove," Roddick said. "I concentrate hard on [first-serve] percentages, and this week I think I'm up over 70, which is a pretty high number, especially if you serve big."
Still, the first set was a seesaw affair, with both players holding serve to force a tiebreaker. Roddick got the crucial mini-break by smacking a backhand winner down the line to cap a long rally that saw both players gasping for air at the end. Srichaphan then walloped a forehand wide, handing Roddick the tiebreaker, 7-4.
From there, the contest wasn't close.
Roddick broke Srichaphan to open the set and, in the process, broke Srichaphan's spirit. The Thai was also affected more by the heat than Roddick, using ice-laden towels to cool off during the changeovers.
For Roddick, the match was a more helpful barometer of his game than Friday night's quarterfinal against Ivo Karlovic, who slammed 29 aces during a match in which most points ended with the serve or return of serve.
"I said two days ago I felt like I was on the verge of playing well," Roddick said. "Yesterday I didn't really get a gauge of much because I didn't hit many rallies. Today I felt I turned a corner to playing well. I felt I was hitting the ball well, and it was doing what I wanted it to do."
Yesterday's other semifinal was the first meeting between Blake, 25, and Berdych, 19, whose biggest career victory came over top-ranked Roger Federer at the 2004 Olympics.
At 6 feet 4, Berdych's biggest weapons are his serve and forehand. It came as a surprise to the young Czech that Blake's serve was even more potent than his own. Blake served nine aces and never lost his serve in the match, which he wrapped up in an efficient 68 minutes.
Blake's serve got stronger as the match wore on. He also took more chances on his return game in the second set, while Berdych started to tire.
"I was questioning if I would be back on a tennis court in any capacity," Blake said. "And to be back in a final? There was quite a long time I was wondering if I was ever going to be back again. It's such a great feeling. It could be taken away at any time. I'm just going to enjoy it."