Andy Roddick walked away with the title, but James Blake won the honors for post-match remarks yesterday before a capacity crowd of 7,588 at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.
Roddick uncorked 18 aces in his 7-5, 6-3 victory over Blake, his good friend and frequent hitting partner, to pick up his second Legg Mason championship and his fourth title this year. With the victory, Roddick takes over the lead in the U.S. Open Series standings, which puts him on track for a $2.2 million payday in New York next month if he finishes the hard-court circuit in first place and wins what would be his second U.S. Open.
Roddick concluded his on-court acceptance speech by paying tribute to Blake, 25, who became the first player to break Roddick's whopping serve this week and forced the top seed into uncharacteristic errors with his aggressive play.
"As good of a player as you saw here," Roddick told the crowd, "he's an even better person."
A Washington fan favorite since he won the Legg Mason in 2002, Blake thanked everyone from the tournament's ballkids to its massage therapists; his girlfriend for making him happy and fulfilled; and his friends who drove from Connecticut to cheer him on. Finally, he thanked his mother, who was watching from the stands.
"She means the world to me," he explained. Then he asked fans to join him in singing "Happy Birthday" on the eve of her 70th birthday. "Her name is Betty," Blake added. "I'll start."
And fans erupted in song, paying tribute to someone they had never met.
Despite his loss in yesterday's final, Blake accomplished an enormous amount at this year's Legg Mason. He opened play as the world's 101st-ranked player, deemed unworthy of a seed. He leaves having knocked off three seeds, advanced to his first ATP final in two years and acquitted himself against Roddick as well as any opponent.
"It hurts to lose right now," said Blake, who has worked his way back to form after illness and injury in 2004 sent his ranking plunging. "But I'll be satisfied. I played some good tennis and made some very good players look less than good."
Roddick, who also won the tournament in 2001, opened the match in signature style, cranking an ace clocked at 139 mph. He held serve and immediately broke serve, pouncing on Blake's slow and shaky start. In no time Roddick's lead was 4-1, and the rout, it seemed, was on.
But Blake broke back -- a stunning achievement in itself, given that Roddick had won all 56 of his service games this week. He reeled off three consecutive games to draw even at 4-4 only to falter at the worst possible time.
Serving to force a tiebreaker at 5-6, Blake hit a wild forehand and sprayed an out-of-control backhand, howling in anguish at the blunder. Then he badly overplayed an overhead to hand Roddick the set, 7-5.
"He missed a couple shots that he hadn't missed at that point," Roddick said of the key game later. "That's part of tennis. You put enough balls on the court, you're going to get some to go your way. It was unexpected, but I was happy to see it at that point."
Blake kicked up his aggression in the second set, while Roddick, who had started "a little too ramped up," he confessed, grew more precise with his serves and strokes.
Said Blake: "Especially early on I felt like I was playing defense too much. Andy was really attacking me. I'm not a [Guillermo] Coria or a [Juan Carlos] Ferrero who can stand back there and hit all day. I want to be pushing forward. Once I started doing that, I felt like I was playing better. That's what I need to do to play my best."
Blake kept pressing, but Roddick was able to pull out a winner when it mattered most, though he plowed his share of backhands.
Roddick jumped on a few loose shots by Blake to break him in the eighth game and take a 5-3 lead.
With Roddick serving for the title, the players produced the point of the match. Knocked on his heels, Roddick fired a lob that Blake plucked from the air and slammed with such fury that Roddick could only squat and swat at the ball. He punched it over the net, as spectators gasped, only to see Blake fire the ball past him for a winner down the line. Blake's reward was a standing ovation and break point opportunity.
But he couldn't convert, netting a service return for deuce.
With the match in his hands, Roddick pulled out a pair of aces (144 and 126 mph, respectively) and a service winner to settle it.
As night fell, Roddick headed to Montreal for his next U.S. Open tuneup. And Blake looked forward to today's updated rankings, in which he should vault from 101 to roughly from 70 to 75.
"I've really felt confident the last few weeks," Blake said. "It was just a matter of maybe showing everyone else that I still have the game."