James Blake booked his finals berth at the US$525,000 ATP hardcourt tournament in Los Angeles on Saturday with a three-set victory over South Korean Lee Hyung-taik.
Blake, the second-seeded American, shrugged off a shaky second set to post a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over the seventh-seeded Lee.
He will face Czech Radek Stepanek, who advanced on a walkover when 2004 finalist Nicolas Kiefer of Germany withdrew from the second semi-final with a knee injury.
Ranked ninth in the world, Blake is seeking his second title of the year and 10th of his career.
His other title this year came in January at Sydney.
"It's a good feeling, and hopefully the start of good things in the summer," Blake said. "Last year, I made the final and played a great match against Andy [Roddick] in Indianapolis, and then didn't have such a great summer up until the US Open."
"This year I'd love to continue to have a good summer and play a little better in those Masters Series. ... This year, I think I've got a chance to do even better. I feel even more prepared and I'm excited about being in another final," he said.
Blake outlasted Lee in extremely hot conditions by firing 10 aces in the match that took just under two hours.
After an erratic second set, Blake bounced back in the third, breaking Lee's serve in the ninth game to take control.
Lee, playing his first semi-final of the year, was coming off a quarter-final triumph over former world No. 1 Marat Safin, seeded third.
Kiefer, who was sidelined for the second half of last year with a wrist injury, is seeking his first singles title since winning at Moscow in October 2005.
The 30-year-old German is 3-1 lifetime against Stepanek, who is making his first semi-final appearance of the year.
Top-seeded Rafael Nadal qualified to play Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland in the Mercedes Cup final yesterday.
In Saturday's semi-finals, Nadal beat Feliciano Lopez 6-1, 7-5 to record his 92nd win on clay from 93 matches, and Wawrinka upset seventh-seed Juan Ignacio Chela, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-1.
Nadal and Lopez, both Spaniards, are best friends on the ATP Tour and regularly practice together.
"To lose always hurts, but when you know you lost to the best player on clay and one of your closest friends, it is a little easier," Lopez said.
"It would have been a miracle if I had beaten him," he said.
The 84th-ranked Lopez had defeated 10th-ranked Tomas Berdych 6-0, 6-3 in the second round.
Wawrinka had entered the tournament with just one win in his last eight matches.
Hungarian teenager Agnes Szavay routed second-seeded Martina Mueller 6-0, 6-1 yesterday at the Palermo International to win her first-ever singles title.
The eighth-seeded Szavay dominated from the baseline with Mueller winning her only game on her first service game of the second set on the red-clay courts of the Country Time Club.
Mueller appeared worn out from her three-set semi-final win over Karin Knapp on Saturday.
The 18-year-old Szavay's previous best results were two semi-final appearances -- at Modena, Italy, in 2005 and Budapest, Hungary, earlier this year -- but she lost both matches.
Szavay has jumped 154 places in the ranking this year to reach No. 53. She advanced to the second round at the French Open and Wimbledon after winning three qualifying matches at each major.
Akiko Morigami returned to the Cincinnati Women's Open final when she outlasted qualifier Akgul Amanmuradova from Uzbekistan 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-3 on Saturday.
Morigami was to play Anna Chakvetadze of Russia in yesterday's final. Chakvetadze bounced back from a rough second set to advance with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 win over third-seeded Sania Mirza of India.
"I just really enjoyed the match," said seventh-seeded Morigami, who lost to Patty Schnyder of Switzerland in the 2005 championship match. "She's been playing well. I had to battle all the way. I had to be mentally tough."
Morigami had 17 chances to break Amanmuradova's serve and converted just four. The most crucial came in the sixth game of the third set when the Japanese veteran returned a second serve deep to Amanmuradova's backhand. Amanmuradova hit her return volley into the net.
"It was a little bit tough," Morigami said. "I kept telling myself not to think about the breaks and just to focus on the next point."
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