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Devotee 04-09-2006 07:13 AM

Blake set to beat Roddick | Section: Tennis

April 9, 2006, 1:59AM

The way he's playing, James Blake is primed to finally beat Andy Roddick

Gap at the top is narrowing

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The divide separating America's best player, Andy Roddick, from America's second-best player, James Blake, remains a significant one.

Head-to-head, it's no contest: The former world No. 1 and U.S. Open champion Roddick has won eight times to zero for Blake.

Also, at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, where both are headed this week after their Davis Cup duties are finished, it has been the Andy Show, period. He has never not made the final in the tournament's five Aprils at Westside Tennis Club, winning three titles, while Blake has stalled in the quarters four years running. And, at 26, he will soon be on the back side of his prime, whereas Roddick, still 23, should now be entering his.

But it's difficult to grasp how much the gap between the two players has closed in the last 12 months since Blake won the River Oaks International and Roddick followed two weeks later with another Clay Court title. They were separated by some 200 ranking spots then. Today it's four with Roddick clinging tenuously to No. 4 and Blake at No. 8 with a bullet.

If Roddick were to falter early at Westside and Blake fights into the final weekend, they could be fifth and seventh, respectively, afterward.

Considering their disparate results and mindsets — of late, this is hardly inconceivable.

But don't think Blake is ready to proclaim himself the savior of American tennis, Roddick's handle, and burden, since he was a teenager.

"Andy's proven himself," Blake said at the recent Nasdaq-100 Open, where he reached the quarterfinals before losing to Roger Federer. "He's won a Grand Slam. He's won Masters Series titles.

"Right now I'm playing great tennis. But being in the top 10 means I've played good tennis for awhile. His being No. 4 (after) being No. 1 and finishing a year (2003) at No. 1 means you've been playing really good tennis for a long time.

"Even if I were to pass him in the rankings, until it's something I've done day in and day out, month in and month out, then I don't feel I deserve that title quite yet."

On the first day of the U.S.-Chile Davis Cup tie on Friday, it was Roddick who came through, winning two tough tiebreakers to beat Olympic champion Nicolas Massu, and not Blake, who somehow lost to Fernando Gonzalez despite leading by two sets, a break and 30-0. However, since early August 2005, when Roddick defeated him in the ATP's Washington, D.C. final, the Yonkers-born, Harvard-educated Blake has posted better Tour results.

In that span, Blake has won four of his five career titles, nearly knocked off Andre Agassi in a memorable five-set U.S. Open quarterfinal after taking out No. 2 Rafael Nadal — and got two quick breaks up on Federer in the Masters Series Indian Wells final.

Roddick has won only once since falling in the first round of the U.S. Open last year — in Lyon, France, in October. That was the last time he reached a final. His 2006 record is just 14-6, compared to Blake's 22-6.

Roddick's expectations have dropped since last summer's Wimbledon, when he was crushed by Federer in the final.

"Even when I lost, I did things really well in patches, which is progress," Roddick said prior to the Davis Cup. "Which is pretty much all you can hope for."

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