Photos by Audrey Kubilius
The Pilot Pen offered a rare All-American men's final, a fact tournament promoters were quick to point out.
NEW HAVEN - Fairfield native James Blake was pitted against his self-described best friend in the world, Mardy Fish, in the men's singles finals of the Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament held last month at the Connecticut Tennis Center. But Blake would not let his personal feelings intercede with business as the 6th-ranked and third-seeded Blake systematically took apart his friend and neighbor -- the two reside on the same street in Florida --7-5, 6-4. The match represented what is becoming a rarity on the ATP Tour: A final with two Americans pitted against each other -- a fact not lost on the ESPN2 audience.
It was Blake's second title in New Haven in the past three years. Last year, he was upset in the first round. It was also his third final appearance in this year's summer hardcourt season -- and a particularly sweet win given the obstacles he needed to overcome just to reach the finals.
First, came back from three match points training 4-5 in the second set to move past No. 16-seed Agustin Calleri in the third round, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-1. Then, against No. 5-seed Paul-Henri Mathieu in the semis, he failed to convert on two match points at 5-4 in the third sent, but eventually closed out the match in a third-set tie-break 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2).
In the first set, it seemed as if no one could hold serve. Blake broke Fish's serve first, taking the fifth game of the first set to go up 3-2. But Fish broke right back, tying the set at 3-3. In the very next game, Blake smashed a forehand winner past Fish, who was charging the net, to go up 40-30, and breaking his friend's serve once again to go up 4-3. It was the third straight game that resulted in a service break.
But wait. Fish came right back to break Blake yet again, tying the game again at 4-4. The two were back "on serve" in technical terms. In reality, they were anything but.
"Against a player like Mardy it's usually tough to come by a break," said Blake. "I got a couple early and gave them right back. That was a little frustrating to me. He's a guy that when he's confident, if his serve is coming in he's very, very difficult to break. One of toughest in the game really."
He explained his own difficulties in holding service by complementing his opponent's return of service.
"I think his returns are underrated," said Blake. "I don't know the stats, but I feel like he hammered my second serve and played great on it and put a lot of pressure on me. When he's playing like that he can be so tough to play because he's holding easily and then he's -- if you're not making a lot of first serves then he's putting a ton of pressure on you. You know it's just inevitable that he's going to break eventually."
This was Blake's second win in three career matches vs. Fish, and his second Pilot Pen title in the last three years.
The game finally returned to a normal rhythm, with both Blake and Fish holding serve on the next two games. Then, with the score tied at five and Fish serving, he double-faulted at 40-30 sending the game to deuce. The final point was played entirely baseline-to-baseline with Fish eventually hitting an unforced error deep over the baseline giving Blake a 6-5 lead. Fairfield's own held service in the next game and he took the first set 7-5.
The Connecticut native was in on 85 percent of his first serves compared to just 63 percent for Fish, who hails from Edina, Minn.
"I feel retty good," said Blake after the match. "I mean, I won a title. Can't feel too bad about anything. Felt confident again. That's a great feeling going into the US Open. Feeling like your going into every match no matter who you're against feeling like you can win and you're going to put yourself in a position to win."
This was Blake's second win in three career matches vs. Fish. He admitted it's a little awkward playing against someone he feels so close to.
"I think we were both a little nervous at the start," said Blake. "We haven't played in a match that actuality counts for a couple year for something like this, so this might be bragging rights for a while. But it's tough because you really want to see him doing well, too. We're both professional and we both understand what's on the line and both understand that it's our job and that we're still going to be great friends and still going to probably go to dinner tomorrow night."
But, he admitted, sounding much like Serena Williams after defeating her sister, Venus, "It's not a normal match. It's against someone I know is going to be my friend not just through my tennis career and not just because we happen to be playing against each other, but we're going to be friends forever."
But nothing can ever change the fact that for Blake, the Pilot Pen is very definitely a home-court tournament.
Even though he comes from Minnesota by way of Floriday, Mardy Fish had his own group of supporters to counter Blake's 'J-Block,' appropriately called 'The Fish Tank.'
"It's very exciting," said Blake. "There aren't that many place I've won twice. So many of my friends being here. Getting to be in my own bed driving my own car up here and just enjoying all will the perks of being at home.
Even though Fish seemed to have a contingent of fans in the upper deck that seemed to out-vocalize the renowned "J-Block" during the match (Fish's group was appropriately called the "Fish Tank"), nothing can beat having mom in the stands cheering for you.
"She pretends to act calm but I know she's not," said Blake. "I know her stomach is churning just as much as mine -- or more so. But she's does a great job of acting while she's there and seeming like that's not nervous. I don't want her every getting too down when I lose a match. I want her to be as happy as she can be.
Szavay's Coming Out Party
While all of the emotion in the Pilot Pen seemed to be wrapped around Blake's victory, perhaps the most newsworthy event was the veritable "coming out party" for an 18-year-old Hungarian prodigy, Agnes Szavay, in the women's draw. Indeed, Szavay, who had to qualify for the main draw, made it all the way to the finals - where she was actually leading the No. 1 seed, Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, 6-4, 0-3, before having to retire in the second set with a back injury while leading.
18-year-old qualifier Agnes Szavay shocked the tennis world by reaching the final round -- and winning the first set --- only to retire because of a sore back. (Photo by Bob Phillips)
"I started to feel my back," said Szavay after the match. "It was very tight in the last few days and one nerve is probably going into the joints and it really hurts.
It was the eighth match in nine days for Szavay, which obviously took its toll on the teen's back. It was also the third match of the tournament that Kuznetsova won when an opponent retired. She won her third-round match when Francesca Schiavone retired with an ankle injury, then moved to the finals after Elena Dementieva retired with stomach issues in the semis.
"It's really strange," said Kuznetsova. "The only thing I can say, most of the times, I've been winning. Today was the closest match, like I was close to lose. I was kind of getting my game back during the match, then she got tired."
Through it all, Kuznetsova showed the class of a true champion. Even though the younger Szavay was no doubt devastated by the way the match ended, Kuznetsova tried her best to raise her spirits.
"She's a very nice girl," said Szavay of her opponent. "She always makes me smile. Yeah, she's really nice and she was really sorry about it."
After all, Kuznetsova obviously would have rather won the match on the court.
"She was not happy that she won with a retirement," said Szavay.