Blake's deja vu all over again

Associated Press
American James Blake makes a backhand return to Carlos Moya of Spain during their first round match at the Australian Open. The fifth-seeded Blake won in three sets.

MELBOURNE, Australia - James Blake and Carlos Moya had it all figured out. Or so they said.


They met in the Sydney International final last weekend, already knowing they'd face each other in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday.

At the trophy presentations, Moya joked that he and Blake had an agreement: If Blake won the Sydney title - and he did in three sets - Moya would win in Melbourne.

Blake laughed as he accepted that trophy for the second consecutive year and did his part to keep the gag going. He said he had his fingers crossed when the pact was made.

Just as well. The fifth-seeded American withstood a first-set tiebreaker on Tuesday, then pulled away for a 7-6 (8), 6-2, 6-4 victory over Moya, a former French Open champion once ranked No. 1.

"I was lucky to get through that," Blake said of his Sydney win. "And he's definitely not the guy I wanted to see in the first round here. But I felt great tonight."

Blake said it was "pretty strange" for the two players to be across the net from each other twice in four days.

"I think that's part of the reason I was so excited at the end of the match," Blake said. "I know it's a tough situation. After he lost (in Sydney), a lot of the pressure is off him. He can come in here and just feel like he can go after his shots a little more, be a little more aggressive, have really nothing to lose."

Blake knows that feeling. It has been a steady climb back in the rankings since 2004. He fractured vertebrae in his neck, lost his father to cancer and contracted a shingles-like condition that affects hearing, sight and caused paralysis on one side of his face. He finished that year at No. 94 - but moved to No. 24 at the end of 2005 and No. 4 at the end of last year.

"I think my best is a lot better than two years ago," Blake said. "That's basically the validation that I've accomplished my goal."

Blake still has not been past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, and he's not putting that sort of pressure on himself this year.

"I don't set any kind of goals that I don't feel like I can be in control of," he said. "Hopefully I'll be here talking to you guys all the way at the end of the tournament."

Blake's chances were boosted by his draw - he is not in Roger Federer's half.

"I have to admit, that was one thing I looked at, to see if I was on that top half or bottom half," Blake said. "The way he's playing these days, it is just a daunting task when you see him in your part of the draw."

In the second round, Blake will face compatriot Alex Kuznetsov, who beat Australia's Peter Luczak 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4.

Blake got a lift in November when he became the last player to qualify for the eight-man, season-ending Masters Cup. He beat the second- and third-ranked players and the defending champ before losing in the final to Federer.

"That really helped my confidence, to know that I can beat those top players, that it's not a fluke ... that I've been able to get wins over (Rafael) Nadal, (Nikolay) Davydenko.

"Obviously, I came up one match short. But Roger played just a little too good. It gives me confidence to know that I got there, then I proved I belonged there."

Blake had his 27th birthday on Dec. 28, but the celebrations were already under way.

"It gave me a pretty good high to go into the off-season with, to feel like you've really earned that week or two you take off," he said.



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