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For Blake, Davis Cup is 'most important'

Tampa resident has a chance to make a name for himself vs. France.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

The mysterious red clay of Roland Garros often produces odd results.

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe couldn't win there. Michael Chang did.

For whatever reason, the site has punished many superstars and rewarded unknowns and up-and-comers. That could bode well for James Blake, a player many believe has a bright future.

Blake, a Tampa resident, is a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team that plays France in the semifinals starting today at Roland Garros in Paris. He is ranked No. 27 (61 spots higher than when the year began), fourth-best among American men, but has just one tournament title.

"Roland Garros is a great place," said Blake, 22, who trains at Saddlebrook. "I came here when I was about 12 as a fan. My parents brought me over here. It was so much fun. It's thrilling to be a player out here. It's got so much history."

Blake hopes to make history.

The United States has won the Davis Cup a record 31 times, but not since 1995. Many of the teams that failed to win included Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who have 21 major titles between them. Agassi and Sampras, exhausted after their recent runs to the U.S. Open final, declined to play, creating the opportunity for Blake, who was picked by captain Patrick McEnroe.

"It's the most important thing in a tennis player's life," Blake said. "It's an honor to be picked to have a chance to play for your country. I love the team atmosphere. I loved it in college. I especially love it when I am playing for something that I really believe in. You really get a high when you're playing for your country."

The U.S. team includes 11th-ranked Andy Roddick, another rising star. Roddick and Blake are a combined 12-0 in Davis Cup play. Blake is 5-0, including two doubles wins. Roddick has won all seven of his Davis Cup matches. Todd Martin will play doubles with Blake or Mardy Fish.

"We're trying to build something with our younger players," McEnroe said. "They like the team aspect of the Davis Cup."

France is led by ninth-ranked Sebastien Grosjean, who is 8-6 in Davis Cup but has had injuries. He and Blake play the second singles match. Arnaud Clement, a 2001 Australian Open finalist, is 5-4. He opens against Roddick. The United States leads France 7-6 in Davis Cup play, but France won the only meeting at Roland Garros in 1932.

"Obviously the French team picked the surface they thought they had the best chance on," Roddick said. "We're playing on their surface, so that makes us the underdogs."

For Blake, who is 31-18 with $599,296 earned this year, the high-profile event provides another opportunity to build name recognition. In this year's majors, he lost in the second round at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. He reached the third round of the U.S. Open before losing to top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt in five sets for the second straight year.

The top moment of Blake's career came the week before the U.S. Open when he captured the Legg Mason title in Washington, becoming the fourth black man to win a title since the Open era began in 1968, joining Arthur Ashe, MaliVai Washington and Bryan Shelton. He beat Agassi in the semifinals.

"My first title was pretty exciting to me, especially beating Andre Agassi, someone who I looked up to as a kid," Blake said. "Now, being part of the Davis Cup team has been a thrill ride the whole time. To be in the semifinals and playing here at Roland Garros is really exciting."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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