S (AFP) - Top-ranking American Andy Roddick may be missing due to injury but James Blake feels that the Stars and Stripes will flutter proudly again at the French Open after last year's shocker.
On that occasion all nine American men in the main draw crashed out in the first round - the first time in 40 years that had happened at a Grand Slam event.
A few hours into the 2008 edition on Sunday, Blake himself ensured that there would be no repeat, thanks to a 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7/3) first round win over former Australian Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler of Germany.
"We set the bar low enough that we're over the bar by 3:00 on Sunday afternoon," Blake said with a laugh."It was a tough situation last year, but now maybe it's just like playing with house money this year. "We all feel like last year was an aberration that should never happen again, and this year we're definitely looking for better results.
"There are a few guys here that are definitely competent. Sam's (Querrey) played well on clay. He drew a relatively tough first round here (Roger Federer). I've played better. Mardy (Fish) in past years had a little more success on the clay. Robby (Ginepri) is playing a little better again.
"At least one American has to get through between him and Donald (Young), but it definitely feels like the Americans are little more confident on the clay. We feel like we've learned and gotten a little more experience."
Seventh seeded Blake, who has yet to reach a Grand Slam final, believes that part of the reason for improved US performances is due to the success the Americans have reaped in the Davis Cup where they are regularly called on to play on clay when away from home.
But whereas he is convinced progress is being made, he believes it will be extremely difficult to turn the clock back to the 1980s and 90s when Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi were regular contenders in the second week winning four times in 11 years."We know the expectations are very, very high. But those guys were excellent," Blake said."Jim Courier was an excellent clay court player, Chang was an excellent clay court player. Agassi, the way he struck the ball, was effective on any court.
"And I don't think there were as many of the specialists back then.
"There are guys 60, 70, 80 in the world that get all their points on clay, and this is their one big tournament to really make a move.
"So it's difficult to get through those guys no matter if you're top 10, top 20 player, those guys knw how to play on clay."
Kuerten bids farewell
PARIS (AFP) - Serbian duo Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic endured struggling starts to the French Open on Sunday as former triple champion Gustavo Kuerten brought his career to an emotional end. Third seed Djokovic, the Australian Open champion and Rome Masters winner, needed four sets to see off Germany's world number 64 Denis Gremelmayr 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2. But they were warm-up acts for Kuerten's final show.
The Brazilian, a former world number one and the champion here in 1997, 2000 and 2001, was beaten 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 Paul-Henri Mathieu.
to bring his career, so recently blighted by a chronic hip injury, to a sad end.
"It has been my life, my passion, my love at Roland Garros," said the 31-year-old Kuerten who had made 2008 his farewell tour.
"Winning here three times was great but the love you showed me in return was even more important for me."
Kuerten was joined at the exit by Spain's 1998 champion Carlos Moya whose 13th Roland Garros was ended by Argentinian qualifier Eduardo Schwank who won 7-6 (7/4), 6-2, 6-7 (1/7), 4-6, 6-3 in a marathon four-hour clash.
Djokovic struggled against Gremelmayr, losing the first set after slipping to a 4-0 deficit and then allowing a 5-1 lead in the third set to melt away and allow the German to pull back to 5-5.
"He surprised me a little bit. He was aggressive, took his chances and went for his shots. He deserved to win the first set," said Djokovic, a semi-finalist here in 2007, and the best player on the tour this year.
Djokovic will now face Spanish qualifier Miguel Angel Lopez Jaen for a place in the third round.
"The pressure is always there," said Djokovic who is seeded to meet triple champion Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.
"But as the third player in the world and a Grand Slam champion and the first player in the race this year, of course there are a lot of expectations."
World number two Ivanovic became Serbia's first Grand Slam finalist here in 2007 beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova before she fell to pieces in the final against Henin, going down 6-1, 6-2.
Since then she has also finished runner-up to Sharapova at the Australian Open.
But it wasn't 20-year-old Ivanovic's most convincing display on Sunday.
After easing through the first set, she then had to save break points in the fifth, seventh and ninth games of the second before seeing off the 24-year-old Swede whom she had also defeated at the same stage here last year.
"If I reach the final again I'll perform a lot better than I did last year. That was a great experience and I don't regret it," said Ivanovic.
"This year I'm in a different position to last year. Then I had only just broken into the world top 10 and there was less pressure. Now I am number two in the world so I have more expectations."
Ivanovic will now face the Czech Republic's Lucie Safarova.
However, another Czech was already packing her bags after 15th seed Nicole Vaidisova, a semi-finalist in 2006, slumped to a 7-6 (7/2), 6-1 defeat to compatriot, and best friend, Iveta Benesova.
Vaidisova's defeat was her sixth in a row this year leaving her without a win since the first round in Dubai three months ago.
Meanwhile, Argentinian sixth seed David Nalbandian, and seen as another dangerman for Nadal, saw off compatriot Carlos Berlocq 6-2, 6-4, 6-1.
Nalbandian, a semi-finalist in 2004 and 2006, holds a 2-0 career record over Nadal and could meet the Spaniard in the quarter-finals.
He next faces French wildcard Jeremy Chardy.
American seventh seed James Blake, who has never got beyond the third round, saw off German veteran Rainer Schuettler 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7/3) and will next tackle Ernests Gulbis of Latvia.
British 10th seed Andy Murray was also a first day winner beating French 17-year-old Jonathan Eysseric 6-2, 1-6, 4-6, 6-0, 6-2 and will meet either Argentina's Jose Acasuso or Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia for a third round spot.
Later Sunday, Women's 2002 champion Serena Williams is also due on court to face fellow American Ashley Harkleroad.