Friday, December 21, 2012

Top Sacramento seeds recall epics vs. Agassi

James Blake, the reigning Sacramento Challenger champion,
lost to Andre Agassi in one of the greatest matches in U.S.
Open history. Photo by Paul Bauman
   For James Blake, it was one of the two most memorable matches of his career. For Benjamin Becker, it was perhaps the most-hyped match he has ever played.
   The top two seeds in October's $100,000 RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento are in the twilight of their careers, but they will always be linked to Andre Agassi.
   Both Blake and Becker were 25 when they faced Agassi in career-defining encounters at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the U.S. Open. Agassi was 35 and 36, respectively. Each match was played in front of almost 24,000 fans and a national television audience.
   Blake, a wild card, lost in a weeknight epic. Becker, a qualifier, won in a Labor Day matinee. Both players had mixed feelings afterward.
   In one of the greatest matches in U.S. Open history, Blake lost to the seventh-seeded Agassi 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in an All-American quarterfinal in 2005. One year later, Germany's Becker ended the unseeded Agassi's legendary career with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 triumph in the third round.
   San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins covered the Agassi-Blake battle and wrote: "The people wanted neon, fireworks and memories, all of which they got, three times over. Many points were immediately preceded by thunderous standing ovations. There were so many astonishing shots, from both men, they could not possibly be recounted here."
Benjamin Becker, the top seed in this year's Sacramento Challenger, ended
Agassi's career in the 2006 U.S. Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Blake was coming back from a nightmarish 2004. He broke his neck when he slipped on a wet clay court chasing a drop shot during practice in Rome and hit his head on the net post. His father died two months later. Then he developed zoster, a viral disease often caused by stress that temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face and affected his balance. Blake rebounded to earn the ATP World Tour Comeback Player of the Year award in 2005.
   Blake served for the match against Agassi at 5-4 in the fifth set, but Agassi broke back with the help of two crushing returns. Agassi, playing in his 20th straight U.S. Open, was extended to a fifth-set tiebreaker in the tournament for the first time. After 2 hours, 51 minutes, he converted his second match point at 1:09 a.m.      
   "It couldn't have been more fun to lose," Blake told Agassi as they embraced at the net amid a long standing ovation in the still-packed stadium.
   "For 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn't the winner; tennis was," Agassi, the 1994 and 1999 U.S. Open champion and oldest man to reach the semifinals there since Jimmy Connors in 1991, told the crowd. "I don't know if I've ever felt this good here before."
   Blake, who will turn 33 on Dec. 28, won the Sacramento Challenger as the second seed. During the tournament, he was asked if the Agassi showdown was the most memorable match of his career.
   "Probably," Blake replied. "Either that one or the Davis Cup match were we won (the title) in Portland (Ore.). I beat (Russia's Mikhail) Youzhny in three tiebreakers. They're both pretty memorable."
   Blake outlasted Youzhny 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3) to give the United States a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five Davis Cup final in 2007. The U.S. went on to defeat Russia 4-1 and end a 12-year Davis Cup title drought, the Americans' longest since the prestigious competition began in 1900. The U.S., which has won a record 32 Davis Cup championships, has not won the Cup since 2007.
   Blake most remembers the match point he saved against Agassi.
   "I hit a forehand inside in that he actually wrote about in his book ('Open,' published in 2009)," Blake said. "He said it was (10) feet from anywhere he thought I had a chance of going with that ball. ... I'm going to take my rips. I've practiced it a million times, so I might as well go for it now."
   But Agassi promptly closed out the match. He dispatched another American, Robby Ginepri, in the semifinals before losing to Roger Federer in four sets in the last Grand Slam final of Agassi's career. Blake, who climbed to a career-high No. 4 in the world in 2006, also reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open that year and the Australian Open in 2008. But Blake, now ranked No. 127, has never gone further in a Grand Slam tournament.
   Naturally, Agassi also wrote in his book about facing Becker, the 2004 NCAA singles champion from Baylor in Waco, Texas. Agassi, who was born with one vertebra out of alignment, was wracked by back pain at the time.
   "Thirty minutes before the match," Agassi wrote, "I get an anti-inflammatory injection, but it's different from the cortisone. Less effective. Against my third-round opponent, Benjamin Becker, I'm barely able to remain standing.
   "I look at the scoreboard. I shake my head. I ask myself over and over, How is it possible that my final opponent is a guy named B. Becker? I told (my coach, Darren Cahill) earlier this year that I wanted to go out against somebody I like and respect, or else against somebody I don't know.                        
   "And so I get the latter."
   Becker, who's not related to countryman and Hall of Famer Boris Becker, lost to Daniel Kosakowski, a 20-year-old wild card from the Los Angeles area, in the first round of the Sacramento Challenger. Becker was still recovering from a torn groin muscle. He said later in the week that the Agassi encounter was not the most memorable match of his career. But it's up there.
   "The most memorable was when I won my only title (on grass in s'Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, in 2009) because I felt it was a bigger achievement than beating Agassi, who obviously was not at his best.
   "It was my first time (in the) U.S. Open and first time on center court, Arthur Ashe (Stadium), in front of so many people. It was maybe the most hyped match I've ever played," said Becker, 31.
   The matchup featured two players under 6 feet, a rarity in men's professional tennis. Agassi was listed at 5-11 (180 centimeters) and 177 pounds (80 kilograms) and Becker at 5-10 (178 cm) and 158 pounds (72 kg).
   Despite the hype, Becker said the match wasn't difficult to play.
   "I had nothing to lose," he explained. "I knew I had a chance. I knew I was playing well because I went through qualifying, I won two (main-draw) matches, I felt good about myself, I was confident, I was still young, I just came from college.
   "I enjoyed it. I really just focused on the match. I had no distractions from the crowd or who I was playing. Obviously, I was nervous at the beginning. It wasn't as tough as maybe afterward, trying to play the tournament after you beat Agassi (with) the big hype and media attention I had."
   Andy Roddick, the ninth seed and 2003 U.S. Open champion, dismissed Becker 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 in 95 minutes the next day.
   "I was so tired," Becker recalled. "I had maybe 2 1/2 hours of media (after beating Agassi), and obviously we played maybe three hours (actually 3 hours, 1 minute), and I had maybe less than 24 hours to prepare for the Roddick match. Obviously, he was way too good, so I had no chance."
   Becker admitted harboring mixed feelings about beating Agassi. As a junior, Becker idolized Boris Becker and Agassi.
   "It was tough to accept that I deserved to be the one that finishes his big career because I was just a kid coming from college ranked a hundred something (actually No. 112)," Becker said. "So I felt a little bit bad, obviously. As a fan, I would be pissed at myself to think that I was the guy. It would be maybe more appropriate for Roddick to do it, but that's how it was. I just wanted to win the tennis match. That's how I looked at it. I didn't want to beat Agassi -- I just wanted to win the tennis match."
   Becker went on to reach a career-high No. 38 in 2007, but the right-hander has dropped to No. 65 after undergoing two operations on his left elbow last year. He is 1-5 at the U.S. Open since 2006.    
CALENDAR
   Jan. 14-27, 2013 -- AUSTRALIAN OPEN, www.australianopen.org. 2012 champions: Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka, Leander Paes-Radek Stepanek, Svetlana Kuznetsova-Vera Zvonareva.
   Jan. 15 -- Sacramento State men at Stanford in spring season opener for both teams, 1:30 p.m, www.hornetsports.com, www.gostanford.com.
   Jan. 18 -- Stanford women open spring season at Freeman Invitational in Las Vegas and at NCTC Classic in Indian Wells, Calif., times TBA, www.gostanford.com. UC Davis women open spring season vs. Northern Arizona in Tempe, Ariz., 1 p.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com.
   Jan. 19 -- UC Davis men at Santa Clara in spring season opener for both teams, 10 a.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com, www.santaclarabroncos.com.
   Feb. 1 -- Sacramento State women open spring season at Arizona, 12:30 p.m., www.hornetsports.com.
   Feb. 1-3, 2013 -- Davis Cup, first round, United States vs. Brazil in Jacksonville, Fla., www.daviscup.com.
   Feb. 9-10, 2013 -- Fed Cup, first round, United States at Italy, www.fedcup.com.
   Feb. 11-17, 2013 -- SAP Open, HP Pavilion in San Jose, www.sapopentennis.com. 2012 champions: Milos Raonic, Mark Knowles-Xavier Malisse.
   March 4-17, 2013 -- BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells, Calif., www.bnpparibasopen.com. 2012 champions: Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, Marc Lopez-Rafael Nadal, Liezel Huber-Lisa Raymond.
   April 26-28 -- Big Sky Conference men's and women's tournament, Gold River Racquet Club, Gold River, Calif., www.bigskyconf.com.

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