By Marc Raimondi
James Blake has never won a US Open, but he's won over more than a few fans in Queens — and not just because of the New York Mets regalia he wore to the court Monday night.
Blake seems to have a flair for the dramatic — for better or for worse. He's played in some of the best matches Arthur Ashe Stadium has seen these last few years and he and Donald Young put on another one to kick off the 2008 Open. Blake, seeded ninth, outlasted the 19-year-old unseeded upstart, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, in a two-hour-and-28-minute match that ended just past 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.
“I'm not trying to do this every time,” said Blake, a Westchester native and graduate of Harvard. “These guys play well against me.”
The fans who stayed at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center into the late night and early morning hours were treated with a gutsy performance from both men. The fourth set alone, which Young pulled out in dramatic fashion, lasted 53 minutes.
Last year, Blake was involved in arguably the two best matches of the Open. After going winless in his first nine five-set matches, he beat Fabrice Santoro, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, in the second round. Blake was halted in the quarters, though, by Tommy Haas, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 7-6 (4), despite earning three match points in a classic.
In 2005, Blake beat Rafael Nadal in Flushing Meadows in the third round, marking his first victory over a top-10 opponent. As a hometown product, he's one of the most popular players in New York City and his well-publicized “J-Block” fan section is loud and boisterous throughout his matches — especially in night sessions.
Young, who came into the match ranked 102 in the world, doesn't have nearly the pedigree as Blake, but he has a whole lot of ability. Tennis legend and Douglaston native John McEnroe once said the Georgia resident and former No. 1 junior player has “hands like another lefty I know,” referring to himself.
But for all that talent, Young came in only 10-30 in singles matches and his ATP rank has worsened since its high of No. 73 in April.
“Sometimes one of the drawbacks of potential is you might have too many tools,” Blake said of Young. “He's got a great forehand and he can play great defense. It's sometimes tough to deal with that…I think he made a huge step tonight and I hope he continues it with his practice.
None of that mattered against Blake. Young looked overmatched in the first set, but responded with a flourish in the second. He came back strong after a lackluster third set, as well, to force a fifth. His undoing was on break points – he converted only 3-of-15, while Blake was 6-of-13.
“I really don't think there's much between him and guys in the top 20 and 30 in the world,” Blake said.
It certainly wasn't a shabby performance for Young in his first five setter.
“It wasn't really a Court 17 fifth set with like two people watching either,” Young said with a laugh. “It was night session on Ashe with one of the best Americans.”
Blake survived what would have been a monumental upset and now moves on with a US Open title on his mind. He is coming off an odd Olympics where he beat former world No. 1 Roger Federer but was ousted by Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinals. Blake did not medal.
Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.