NEW YORK - James Blake listened intently to the news that he had just become the first African-American man since Rodney Harmon in 1982 to make the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and then confessed, a bit sheepishly, "Really? I didn't know that."
He smiled. Not as broadly as he had after coming from behind yesterday to defeat Tommy Robredo, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3. But there was no mistaking the pride.
Tomorrow, and undoubtedly in a made-for-television night match against his childhood idol, Andre Agassi, Blake can bring himself very close to transcending tennis and becoming something of a legendary American sports figure.
His personality is that scintillating, his history that compelling.
Born in Yonkers, educated for two years at Harvard, a black man succeeding in what has been for too long a white sport in the United States. And then the travails of 2004, when he cracked a vertebra in a collision with a net pole, the virus that damaged his vision for months and the death of his father.
Agassi, who earlier defeated Xavier Malisse, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2, to also reach the quarterfinals, summed up Blake.
"Listen, James is an easy guy to like and he's an easy guy to root for. If he's getting the better of me, if we happen to play, you know I couldn't wish it for a better person."
At 35, Agassi is the oldest U.S. Open men's quarterfinalist since Jimmy Connors' run at 39 to the semifinals in 1991.
Blake, No. 7 seed Agassi and No. 8 Guillermo Coria were the first three men to reach the quarterfinals. Robby Ginepri became the fourth quarterfinalist when he beat No. 13 Richard Gasquet last night, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (8-10), 6-4, 6-0, and four more quarterfinalists will come out of the top half of the draw today.
The women, meanwhile, got down to the final eight with Mary Pierce scoring a 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 7 Justine Henin-Hardenne, who had beaten her one and one in the French Open final.
Also, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport roared through her fourth straight opponent, Nathalie Dechy, 6-0, 6-3; No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo was a 6-1, 6-4 winner over No. 19 Elena Likhovtseva; and last year's runner-up Elena Dementieva, the No. 6 seed, beat No. 11 Patty Schnyder, 6-4, 6-3.
For most of the first two sets, Blake produced none of the ground-stroking consistency that lifted him through the first week. Then, with Robredo two points from a two-set lead, everything clicked for Blake and his quick-footed opponent graciously threw in a couple of double faults.
"Until that point, I really felt flatfooted. I don't know what it was," Blake said. "I guess it could have been a letdown after having such a big win two days earlier. I was getting almost to the ball and then just kind of blocking it, not making the extra adjustments steps that you have to make.
"I started moving my feet once he felt the nerves. I started going after my shots. I said, `I have to do this. I'm not going to win otherwise. He's not going to keep getting tight.' "
Agassi also looked to be in deep trouble after Malisse stormed through the fourth set. "The standard he set in the third and fourth was really high," Agassi said. "I needed to answer that. I did in the fifth."
Agassi took more risks with his serve and converted 16 of 19 into points.
For Davenport, it was one more step toward a possible fourth Grand Slam title and her first since the 2000 Australian Open. She'll next play Dementieva, over whom she holds a 9-1 record on hard courts.
She played her toughest and best match of this tournament, but she wasn't getting high on her game yet. "What happens on Wednesday, I have no idea," she said.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.