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Saturday, July 21, 2007
Blake struggles, but advances to Countrywide final vs. Stepanek

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- James Blake advanced to the final of the ATP Countrywide Classic, struggling to get past South Korea's Hyung-Taik Lee in three sets Saturday.

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"Almost never on tour does a match go according to plan," Blake said after his 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory at the UCLA Tennis Center. "You get a little frustrated. But at 27 I'm better at not letting a little frustration turn into a big frustration."

Blake reached the finals for the 18th time in his career. He's already won two titles this season and is 9-8 lifetime in finals appearances.

Blake will face unseeded Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, who advanced when wild-card Nicolas Kiefer of Germany withdrew due to a sore knee.

Kiefer, who'd advanced to the semis with a straight-set victory over Michael Berrer on Friday, took a microphone at center court and addressed the crowd.

"I don't like to have to stand here and say I'm injured," he said. "Most of the time I'm saying thank you for the trophy or the check."

Kiefer, once ranked No. 4, injured a wrist at last year's French Open and had surgeries in July and October. He returned to tournament play only last month.

Stepanek injured his back last summer after Wimbledon and sat out the rest of the year. After failing to reach the quarters in his first 14 events this year, he reached the semifinals for the second straight tournament.

Lee, who beat Marat Safin to reach the semis, didn't hit a serve harder than 125 mph all week.

"I know his strengths and weaknesses," the 31-year-old Lee said before the match, and he confounded Blake with his grit and his backhand, down the line returns of serve.

"That's his favorite shot," Blake said. Blake had beaten Lee in their only previous encounter, 6-3, 6-2, at San Jose four years ago.

Lee, serving the third game and trailing Blake 0-40, avoided a break when he made a spectacular return of Blake's drop shot and flicked a winner. He won the next four points as well to salvage the game, and then broke Blake at love to lead 3-1. But then Blake cranked up his game and ran out the set.

Lee gathered himself quickly, however, opening the second set with its one and only break. Blake had triple break point to square it 3-3, but again couldn't seal it.

Blake said he wasn't reluctant to attempt such a shot in a semifinal "...when I'm playing confident on my favorite surface [hardcourt]."

At 3-3 in the third, Blake held serve with a second-serve ace down the middle. He then broke for 5-3, putting a shot at Lee's feet as Lee dashed to the net.