Blake returns to all-American final at the Pilot Pen

Aug 25, 2007 - 6:23 AM NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Ticker) -- After a scare on Thursday, James Blake climbed within one win of his second title in three years at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament.

The third-seeded American outlasted No. 5 Paul-Henri Mathieu, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), on Friday to earn a berth in the finals of the dual-gender hardcourt event.

A winner of this $675,000 event in 2005, Blake found himself on the ropes in Thursday's third-round action against No. 16 Agustin Calleri before forging an impressive come-from-behind win. The turning point in the 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1 victory occurred in the second set, where Blake forged a 5-5 tie after saving three match points.

The world's sixth-ranked player then rolled past 12th-seeded Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in Thursday evening's quarterfinal. A native of nearby Fairfield, Blake has been the recipient of much fan support here as evident by the rambunctious "J-Block" cheering section at the Connecticut Tennis Center.

Regardless of his fans, the 27-year-old appears to be finding his game heading into next week's U.S. Open. His success here comes a week after he reached the final at Cincinnati before losing to world No. 1 Roger Federer.

Mathieu, who has won titles at Gstaad and Casablanca this season, proved to be a difficult opponent for Blake in the first meeting between the two. He split the first two sets with the American and was even at 3-3 in the third before Blake won the next two games.

A late rally by Mathieu knotted the match as Blake squandered a pair of matach points while serving at 5-4. But Blake was too much in the tiebreak, losing only two points en route to victory.

"It was great tennis and I felt good all match," Blake said. "I had a little spot there in the second set where I felt I wasn't returning very well and not taking advantage when I had second serves coming at me. But after that, I felt good going into the breaker.

"A lot of people would have gotten down on themselves after letting a couple of match points get away from them, but with the way I've been feeling and playing and how confident I was, I don't know how to describe it. When you go into those late situations in matches when you feel this confidence, you just don't feel like you're going to lose. It just doesn't really enter into your mind."

Blake's triumph set up an all-American final with wild card Mardy Fish, who defeated No. 11 Ivo Karlovic, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, in the midday heat.

With the on-court temperature hovering at 103 degrees, Fish nearly dropped the first set but broke the hard-serving Croatian to knot things at 5-5 before going on to win the tiebreak. The 25-year-old earned the only break of the second set, to take a 4-3 edge, en route to the win.

"First of all, just beating (Karlovic) has been pretty tough for me, to say the least, in my career," Fish said. "We were both extremely tired out there. I tried my best to bluff my way through it and I felt like I did a better job than he did at that. That kind of kept me in it, and going out there, I felt like this is really a one-set match - whoever wins the first set is going to have a major advantage."

It was Fish's first win in five career meetings with the 6-9 Croatian, who appeared bothered by both the steamy weather and a sore right arm that required treatment on several occasions during the match.

"Yesterday, I played a lot and it was pretty tiring," Karlovic said. "I was here all day and ate late. I slept awfully and I woke up with a headache. I was feeling really bad on the court today. But he was playing well. He was playing better on his forehand."

This will be Fish's first finals appearance on the ATP Tour since winning his second career title at Houston in April 2006.

First prize for the men's winner is $84,000, while the women's champion will receive $88,265.

In the $600,000 women's tournament, there was an All-Russian semifinal between top seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 6 Elena Dementieva.

Kuznetsova, who secured the top seed when defending champion Justine Henin decided to skip the event, advanced when Dementieva was forced to withdraw in the third set due to heat-related nausea.

The 2004 U.S. Open champion, Kuznetsova was leading, 4-6, 6-3, 3-0, when play was stopped.

"She had been playing well, serving well, but she was getting tired," Kuznetsova said. "I was feeling better and better (as the match went on) and was was like, 'C'mon let's keep playing.'"

Seeking her ninth career title, Kuznetsova is winless in her previous four final appearances this season. Her finals opponent will be qualifier Agnes Szavay, who bested unseeded Eleni Daniilidou, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5, in their evening semifinal.

The 18-year-old Hungarian is having a breakout tournament, having upset the likes of second-seeded Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova and eighth-seeded Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko.

Szavay's victory over Hantuchova, the world's No. 10, marked her first win against a top-10 player. She now finds herself in position to beat the world's fourth-ranked player in Kuznetsova, an opponent she will be playing for the first time.

Despite the loss, Daniilidou had a strong showing here as she pushed her way into the semifinals with upsets of fourth-seeded Russian Dinara Safina and No. 7 Sybille Bammer of Austria.

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