ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/EPA/Landov
September 06, 2005 05:00 PM

It’ll be a battle between two crowd favorites at the U.S. Open this week, as Andre Agassi – playing in his 20th U.S. Open and aiming for his ninth grand slam title – faces off against the newly beloved underdog, James Blake.

“I think my friends are definitely going to be here,” says Blake, 25, about Wednesday’s game against Agassi, 35. “But I know he’s got fans all over the world, especially here. He’s won here. I mean, he’s such a legend. He’s got so many fans that I think they’re also going to be cheering very vocally for him.”

Blake, who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and grew up in suburban Fairfield County, Conn., may be overly modest. With Arthur Ashe as his role model (“because of his personality and his activities off the court”), he entered the game at age 5 playing with older brother, Thomas, and their father, also named Thomas, and mother, Betty, who was raised in England.

But the obstacles also started coming early. At age 13, he was diagnosed with severe curvature of spine, which forced him into a back brace for 18 hours a day. He played tennis for two seasons at Harvard and finished as No. 1 collegiate player in the country before turning pro in June ’99.

Yet only a year ago it seemed impossible Blake would be facing Agassi at the U.S. Open. In fact, Blake could barely even watch a game on TV – because the left side of his face was paralyzed by a viral infection brought on by the stress caused by the death of his father in May 2004.

“Listen, James is an easy guy to like, and he’s an easy guy to root for,” Agassi himself tells The New York Times. “If he’s getting the better of me, if we happen to play, you know I couldn’t wish it for a better person. He deserves support. I just hope it will be a great standard match.”

Meanwhile, shortly after midnight Wednesday, Belgium’s Kim Clijsters made it to the Open’s semifinals with an inspired 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory over Venus Williams. Clijsters will meet Maria Sharapova in Friday’s semifinals after the 2004 Wimbledon champ won a 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 victory over Russian compatriot Nadia Petrova on Tuesday night.

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