Blake advances; Safin eliminated

July 20, 2007 10:19 PM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Second-seeded James Blake advanced to the semifinals of the ATP Countrywide Classic on Friday with a 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory over Vincent Spadea.

Blake will play No. 7 Lee Hyung-taik in a semifinal match on Saturday. Lee eliminated No. 3 seed Marat Safin 4-6, 7-5, 6-4. Nicolas Kiefer, of Germany, the 2004 runner-up, also advanced by beating countryman Michael Berrer 7-6 (5), 6-1.

Kiefer, a wild card entrant playing his first hardcourt tournament in 16 months, will face Radek Stepanek in the other semifinal match. Stepanek beat Zack Fleishman 6-4, 6-2 in the late match Friday night.

Blake is in the semifinals of a tournament for the fourth time this year. He didn't make it out of the second round in his two previous appearances at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA. But his fine showing this time could indicate that Blake is set to have a good season on hardcourts, a surface on which he has won nine career titles.

"I love playing hardcourts, especially here in America," said Blake, who became the tournament favorite when top seed Fernando Gonzalez was upset by Fleishman on Tuesday. "It gets hot out, the ball is jumping on the court, I'm moving and I feel great. I feel like it's tough for guys to get the ball by me, and I feel like my forehand is big enough to get the ball by most of them."

The big forehand was one of the keys to victory over Spadea, who fell to 1-6 in quarterfinal matches this year. Spadea had beaten Blake in six of seven previous meetings on tour by relying on consistency and defense.

"It was definitely an emotional win," Blake said. "In the past he's been extremely consistent, he's gotten to a lot of balls and eventually gotten me to beat myself. Today I said I wasn't going to let that happen. I was going to take it to him and not get down on myself no matter the situation.

"It was as much a mental hurdle as a physical hurdle. I know he's going to play very consistent and make me really have to earn it, so it was a good hurdle to get over."

Lee, ranked No. 42, won the final four games against Safin, who double-faulted on match point.

"I lost the opportunity to go up two breaks," Safin said. "I went for it but I missed by a little. Then he broke me out of nowhere and things got complicated. He got more aggressive and I was more passive."

His next challenge will be to topple Blake.

"I'm not that worried about him," Lee said through an interpreter. "I am in the semifinals now and it is necessary to play someone who has a higher ranking than me. Matching up with him will be tough. But I have played him (losing at San Jose in 2003) and I know his strength and weakness. I think it will be a good match."

Kiefer, off the tour for a year due a left wrist injury that required two operations, rolled through the second set in 24 minutes. It's his first trip to the semifinals since he lost to Roger Fereder at the 2006 Australian Open.

"This is a very big win," said Kiefer, once No. 4 in the world. "I'm very happy the way I'm playing at the moment. I'm not only winning by playing good tennis, but also winning by fighting, and that's the most important thing."

Stepanek is also working his way back from an injury, a dislocated disk in his neck that left him temporarily without the use of his right arm last summer. Ranked No. 8 in the world in July 2000, Stepanek was No. 101 when this tournament began on Monday.

He advanced to the semifinals with three straight-set wins that have boosted his record for the year to 16-15. However, he has lost three straight to Kiefer, most recently at the 2005 U.S. Open.

"I've been waiting for this game for six months," said Stepanek, who was off the Tour from mid-August of last year to January of this year. "I'm starting to feel well. I think Nicolas and I are in similar positions, both coming back from injury and starting to play well. We should have a good match."