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Ulises Blanch's unique odyssey leaves him as top remaining American boy in Eddie Herr quarters

BRADENTON -- Ulises Blanch was three days old when he moved for the first time. From Puerto Rico, he went with his parents to Seattle less than 96 hours after he was born.

Since then, the only seeded American boy left in the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships has gone to China, then to India, then Thailand and now Argentina. Without any of the most notable American juniors in Bradenton this week, the United States' best hope at a male champion is the 17-year-old who was born in San Juan, spends most of his time in Buenos Aires and has a family entrenched in Asia.

"I speak English. It's my first language," Blanch said. "I feel like I'm American."

Armed with a mammoth serve and a wiry, athletic frame, Blanch advanced to the quarterfinals of 18U main draw by beating fellow American John McNally, 2-0 (6-1, 6-3), on Thursday at IMG Academy. The No. 12 seed will be an underdog for the first time at the Eddie Herr International on Friday when he faces No. 4-seed Alex De Minaur, an Australian, at 7:45 a.m. With No. 9-seed Nathan Ponwith already the victim of an upset in the second round Wednesday, Blanch is one of only two American boys left among the final 16.

Even though Blanch didn't start to take tennis seriously until his dad took a job with Coca-Cola and moved the family to Thailand, Blanch always thought of himself as an American. His Spanish father came to Walla Walla University, a school in Washington which competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, on a skiing scholarship. Blanch spent the bulk of his formative years in Seattle and that was where he first started playing soccer, swimming and hitting tennis balls. Even when he became a world traveler, he attended American schools and still attends one in Argentina.

But until last year, when he went to train at the United State Tennis Association facility in Boca Raton, he always felt like a bit of an outsider to the rest of the notable American amateurs. Names like Francis Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka and Taylor Fritz were just names and -- technically -- countrymen.

"It was the first time I met a couple of them," Blanch said. "As I traveled around the world non-stop all my life, I never really played for my country. When I was playing tournaments I was playing for the U.S., but when I was with the American guys I was like, 'I'm on the American USTA team."

He met McNally for the first time there and all the names he had heard suddenly became real to him. Blanch was no longer an outside in the tennis culture he always represented overseas, even if he was still different.

He boasts the big serve and big forehand synonymous with American tennis, and that was the first thing to stand out when Rodrigo Alvarez began working with him three years ago.

"He hit the ball like not so much players," Alvarez said. "Sometimes he has days when he looks like a professional player."

The United States hasn't had a consistent Grand Slam threat on the male side since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired fell off in the early 2000s - Andy Roddick's title at the 2003 US Open is the most recent Slam.

There are Americans with a better rank than Blanch. No one has taken a more unique route, though. Aside from a few brief training stints in the U.S., Blanch has avoided the American developmental track, where power rules and virtually every youth player can tell you precisely how fast they can serve.

Blanch still has those skills, only he doesn't know how exactly how fast it is. His coaches in Argentina have never bothered to track it.

"I'm obviously very curious to know because people say it's very hard and I'm like, 'Really? It's really that hard?'" Blanch said. "They don't want me to get in over my head. If it's very fast they think I'm gonna think that my serve is very good and I'm going to get very cocky.

"I know it's a weapon if it works better, but if it doesn't work it doesn't get me down."

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