Birthday boy Roddick, Sharapova Advance

NEW YORK -- As a kid, Andy Roddick was hard-pressed to come up with a better birthday treat than going to the U.S. Open with his mom. At 9, he was thrilled to be on the scene while Jimmy Connors made a stirring run to the semifinals.

"I'd get here for the first match, and I wouldn't leave till it was over. Those are probably my fondest memories, just sneaking into the nosebleed sections," Roddick recalled Thursday. "I actually snuck into the players' lounge one time and stole a cheesecake."

He still comes to Flushing Meadows at birthday time, nowadays as a competitor -- and with a certain James Scott Connors tagging along as his coach.

Roddick turned 25 on Thursday and marked the occasion by reaching the U.S. Open's third round, although not before losing the opening set and moving on when his opponent, Jose Acasuso of Argentina, quit after the third because of a left knee injury.

"That's the good thing about Grand Slams: You get in the grind, and whoever doesn't mind the grind wins," Connors said after watching the match through silver wraparound sunglasses. "The way Andy played today, especially in the second and third sets, is always good. As long as he's playing the right kind of tennis, that's all that counts."

Maria Sharapova sure played the right way Thursday night, overwhelming 90th-ranked Casey Dellacqua of Australia 6-1, 6-0 in a mere 51 minutes.

"I think she'll most definitely go all the way," Dellacqua said.

The second-seeded Sharapova already had won seven of the first eight games when she disagreed with an official's ruling and argued a bit with the chair umpire. The defending champion's dad was even more agitated in the stands, holding an animated conversation with her agent, who shook his head and covered his face with his hand.

"It's only going to get tougher from here," Sharapova said, "so I'm looking forward to the challenge."

One of her second serves showed up at 129 mph, which would tie Venus Williams' Grand Slam record -- but the company that oversees the serve-speed system at the U.S. Open called it a glitch.

"It was definitely a mistake, because, one, I've never hit a 129 in my life, let alone a second serve, and, two, it definitely didn't feel like a 129," she said. "So definitely wishful thinking."

James Blake finally managed to win a fifth set in his night session match.

Blake ended his 0-for-9 drought in matches that go the distance, outlasting Fabrice Santoro 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the second round of the U.S. Open to win a 3-hour, 25-minute struggle that began Thursday evening and ended after midnight Friday.

"There used to be a big monkey right there," Blake said, pointing to his back, "and now it's gone. I got the monkey off my back. I got a five-setter."

Santoro, at 34 the oldest man left in the tournament, faded down the stretch. He sat with an old-fashioned ice bag perched atop his head while a trainer massaged his left foot and both thighs in the final set, then asked for a medical timeout in the middle of a game after double-faulting. Later, Santoro opted not to sit at all during changeovers, worried about cramping.

The No. 6-seeded Blake is seven years younger and was far fresher, even clear-minded enough to switch hands for a lefty shot that helped win a point. He complained about Santoro's delay tactics, which included deep-knee bends and stretching.

It ended when Blake broke in the final game with a cross-court backhand winner that Santoro could only toss his racket at. They met at the net, Blake put his arm around Santoro and told him, "You played so hard."

Then came as entertaining a match as this year's Open has produced. Blake and Santoro applauded the other's winners. Santoro playfully stuck out his tongue when Blake produced a great drop shot.

"I would love to play for two more hours," a sweat-soaked Santoro said, "because I had a lot of fun tonight."

There was wonderful shotmaking by both -- but particularly by Santoro, his game filled with dinks and lobs, mixing in all sorts of spins and angles while hitting two-fisted off both wings. His play was as colorful as his polo shirt's thin pastel stripes of pink, yellow and lime, and he finished with only 21 unforced errors -- to Blake's 71.

"He makes everyone he plays angry," Blake said. "You've got to be ready for everything against Fabrice. Luckily I came out on top today."

After one superb, 18-stroke exchange in the third set, Santoro leaned over a sideline wall, and a fan ran down a few stadium steps to offer an encouraging slap on the back.

Blake's game is more about court coverage and powerful forehands, and he's always had his most success on hard courts, including reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals each of the last two years.

Three of Blake's previous fifth-set flops came at Flushing Meadows, including against Andre Agassi in 2005.

"I've had so many close ones here -- so many little things not going my way," Blake said.

This time, though, he wound up with a 83-39 edge in winners.

Santoro's claims to fame are his creativity -- and his longevity. This is his 61st Grand Slam tournament, tying Andre Agassi's career record -- but he only has one quarterfinal appearance. And this is his 16th U.S. Open, most among players in the draw.

The record for that? Jimmy Connors played in 22 U.S. Opens. One of those was in 1991, when he made a stirring run to the semifinals at age 39.

Earlier in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a trainer came out to wrap white tape above Acasuso's left knee after the second set, then added another bandage below the knee at the next changeover. By the end, he was as stiff and creaky as the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," barely bending or moving at all, and the score was 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 when Acasuso decided he couldn't continue.

"I don't think you like winning matches like that," the No. 5-seeded Roddick said. "But at the end of the day, your goal is to get through."

In other words: no complaints. Same for Donald Young, the 18-year-old Chicago native who was 0-11 in tour-level matches until last week and never had won a Grand Slam match until this week.

Now he's in the Open's third round, and he didn't have to lift a racket Thursday, because his scheduled opponent, No. 13 Richard Gasquet, withdrew, citing a viral infection. Young saw Gasquet practice and saw him in the locker room, so assumed they'd be playing.

"Prefer to win it," said Young, who faces Feliciano Lopez next, "but I'll take this."

Gasquet, who came back to upset Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals after dropping the first two sets, said he had a fever and a sore throat.

"With my illness," the Frenchman said, "I'm sure I can't win this match."

Roddick, among others, was surprised.

"I feel like that's a short-term thing. I'd probably go out there and give it a go," Roddick said. "My biggest thing with playing matches versus not playing matches is if you're risking long-term -- if it's going to affect you longer than just that day or a week or two down the road."

No. 2 Rafael Nadal had to make that sort of decision before playing Wednesday, when he was far from his best while dealing with tendinitis in his left knee. Like Acasuso, he grew up playing more on softer clay courts than the cementlike hard courts of the U.S. Open -- and both thought that might have been a factor in their injuries.

Players who had to earn victories Thursday included No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, No. 9 Tomas Berdych, No. 10 Tommy Haas and No. 19 Andy Murray, while unseeded Hyung-taik Lee knocked off No. 14 Guillermo Canas in straight sets. There were no significant surprises in women's action, where 1997 champion Martina Hingis got past Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 7-5, and 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova had to work a little harder to defeat Camille Pin 6-3, 4-6, 6-0.

The day's loudest shot might very well have come from No. 13 Nicole Vaidisova against Flavia Pennetta. After getting broken while serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set, Vaidisova slammed her racket head so forcefully it folded in half. Then she went out and served a shutout in the tiebreaker to win 6-2, 7-6 (7-0).

Did she feel bad for the racket?

"It deserved it," Vaidisova said.

Roddick got a tad bent out of shape himself. He lost a point after a spectator yelled, "Come in!" He got broken to trail 4-3 when Acasuso returned a 133 mph serve and worked the point until hitting a forehand winner. Roddick was most perturbed at blowing three break points in the next game.

Asked whether he was pleased with his guy's performance, Connors grinned widely -- and pointed to that smile.

"What's that say? That says it all right there," Connors said. "He's in the right direction. It's just a matter that he believes it and goes out and does it the right way. That's what he's striving to do every day."

The buzz already was starting around the grounds, meanwhile, for a third-round encounter still 48 hours away: No. 1 Roger Federer against 6-foot-9 American wild-card John Isner.

Roddick provided a scouting report.

"Isner's going to be very tall," he said, "and Roger's going to be very good."


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