Thursday, September 03, 2009

US.4- A Standing O for Little O'

Really, have you ever seen so much fight in such a small package?

I mean, at least not since a young woman from Liege, Belgium hit the scene a decade ago. Not surprisingly, Justine Henin is the player that Melanie Oudin most admired when she was growing up. So, it comes rather naturally that the diminutive 17-year old American has seemingly never stared down a tennis mountain that she was afraid to climb.

Why should she be? After all, if she doesn't do it, someone else will get the chance. And why give THEM the opportunity for some glory when she can grab it for herself? It was a mindset that worked for Henin for nearly a decade, and it's already serving Oudin well, too.

The #70-ranked player didn't bother to be intimidated by her Day 4 opponent's resume, as for the second time this summer slam season Oudin managed to push her name into the headlines by taking down a major player on the big stage. At Wimbledon, it was Jelena Jankovic. Today in New York, it was #4-ranked Elena Dementieva. As has become characteristic for Oudin in an '09 campaign that has also seen her step into the spotlight during Fed Cup play, the mighty mite from Marietta, Georgia didn't show a hint of trepidation when it came to the task at hand.

Not when she shook Dementieva's hand before the start of her first-ever match on Ashe Stadium, nor when she dropped a tight 1st set by a 7-5 score. Not when, after she'd knotted the match by taking the 2nd set at 6-4 by keeping the ball deep in Dementieva's court and pressuring the Russian to awkwardly create her own pace, she was forced to call for a trainer to attend to her injured thigh in the final set, either. Even a few dicey moments when her obvious pain made everyone wonder if this potentially glorious day might have a sad end weren't enough to stop Oudin's forward motion.

Like Henin, Oudin was at her most dangerous when she was backed into a corner. Which would explain the 14-4 record in three-setters she sported heading into this 2nd Round match.

In the 3rd, Oudin broke Dementieva' serve to take a 3-1 lead. Then, after trading breaks, the American held for a 5-2 lead on the back of a series of strong 1st serves in the clutch (imagine that... in the women's game... by a player not named Williams). The Russian finally got her first hold of the set for 5-3, leaving it up to Oudin to serve her way into the 3rd Round. And on her third match point of the game, she did just that, with a big 1st serve that Dementieva couldn't return.

Oudin won 5-7/6-4/6-3, and this U.S. Open officially gave birth to a new American star, one with an Henin-like desire on the court and a fun, Clijsters-like, if you will, personality off it. Talk about a crowd pleaser... and pass out the celebratory cigars.

Reuters/Mike Segar

(It was a great moment, for sure... but as an 11am match that was played to a two-thirds full stadium, it was somewhat shortchanged by the tournament organizers. If this match had been scheduled for the night session -- as it rightly should have been -- it'd gone down as an Open classic, with the crowd getting behind the fiery teen in a fashion similar to how the Aussies cheered on Jelena Dokic in Melbourne in January, or even Jimmy Connors in his magical '91 semifinal run at age 39. Oh, what could have been... and maybe still COULD be. But more on that later.)

When Oudin made noise at Wimbledon as a qualifier, it was difficult to dismiss her, but also hard to put TOO MUCH stock in one good result from such a young player, especially one lacking in size and without a huge, game-changing stroke. Her game has improved over the summer, but it's Oudin's heart and guts that override a great deal of the specifics and will play the largest part in carrying her to wherever her career takes her.

Dementieva noted after the match that she didn't lose the match as much as Oudin BEAT HER. She won't be the last one, either.

...does anyone want to win this tournament? For the demise of Dementieva was just Act I of Day 4.

Act II was simply Jankovician, except this time Queen Chaos wasn't smiling in the end. For a while, it looked like we were witnessing a typical skit starring the QC we've come to know and love, with Jelena Jankovic flailing around from time to time but coming up with some brilliant defense to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in dramatic fashion. That almost happened, but it didn't.

Against Yaroslava Shvedova, down 3-1 in the 3rd, Jankovic broke back to get the set on serve. But it turned out to just be one in a series of consecutive breaks the two players were to exchange in the heat of battle as they treated the match like a hot potato that neither seemed comfortable winning. Shvedova served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5, but couldn't put it away either time. In the deciding tie-break, Jankovic managed to scrape out two match point chances at 6-4, but failed to take advantage of either one (following the pattern of her recent U.S. Open Series losses to Marion Bartoli and Alisa Kleybanova after having held match points). Then, on a match point of her own, Shvedova boomed an ace down the "T" to send the '08 Open runner-up packing in her earliest slam exit since the '06 Australian Open.

Two down.

Then, in Act III, to add injury to insult, Sabine Lisicki, back after recuperating from a shoulder injury (just the latest in a long list of ailments since the spring), lost match point in the 3rd set to qualifier Anastasia Rodionova... and nastily turned her ankle in the back court as the ball landed inside the far sideline to seal her Open fate." She was wheeled off the court, adding yet another chapter to the story of one of the most promising players on tour, but one who just cannot seem to stay healthy enough to show it for very long.

So, that makes three contenders down.

...hmmm, is it now "Advantage, Maria" in the top half of the draw? Before the tournament, Maria Sharapova was certainly in the mix to emerge from the top half, but with her serve a huge question mark and Dementieva in her path in the 3rd Round, she was hardly anyone's first choice as a potential finalist. All that may have changed... well, at least it COULD.

With her serve seeming to be more in order, at least in the 1st Round, than it was previously this summer, and with the tournament organizers obviously in love with her as a nighttime draw, she seems set to play nearly every match under the lights (Sharapova vs. Oudin on Saturday seems a natural) where she's so comfortable, not to mention it helping her stay out of the immediate line of fire of any weather (be it heat or backed-up rain-delayed schedules) or abnormally long men's matches that might be scheduled directly before she's to take the court.

With Dementieva, Jankovic and Lisicki all gone, Sharapova's path has cleared quite a bit. Now, only she and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who's hardly done anything since she won Roland Garros to have earned any confidence that she might suddenly right herself in New York, have won slam titles in the top half. Caroline Wozniacki, while currently the most in-form player (on a seven-match winning streak, she nearly double-bageled Petra Martic today), has never reached a slam QF; while Sorana Cirstea (a quarterfinalist at Roland Garros) has yet to prove herself at a hard court slam.

Dinara Safina is still kicking around at the very top of the draw, of course, but she seems to be playing a version of Russian Tennis Roulette each time out (today she double-faulted on set point in the 1st against Kristina Barrois, then fell behind 2-0 in the 3rd before managing to escape with a win yet again). Say what you will about Safina (and it was nice to see Marat defend his sister against the hordes hounding her for being #1, by the way), but at least she almost always seems to find a way through these close slam contests. It's something that the likes of Dementieva can't say, as her Wimbledon SF was surrounded by 3rd and 2nd Round slam exits this spring and summer. Thing is, while Safina's chances to reach a third slam final in '09 improved today (she's actually the only seeded player remaining in her quarter), the sudden departure of so many threats may have set her up for another nightmare scenario where she implodes on the big-stage of a SF or Final.

Kim Clijsters was the designated "comeback story" of this Open, but don't rule out Sharapova stealing the spotlight by the end of next week... if she can only clean up her serve JUST A LITTLE more.

...the Bondarenkos went 1-for-3 on Day 4. While Kateryna Bondarenko reached the 3rd Round via her win over Shenay Perry, sister Alona won't be joining her. She lost to Gisela Dulko. In doubles, the Bondarenkos were defeated by the team of Azarenka/Zvonareva. The Radwanskas lost, too, leaving only the Williams Sisters remaining in the Sibling Doubles competition.

...a whole slew of awards are able to be handed out after today:

--the Americans (thanks to Melanie Oudin, Vania King, Shenay Perry and Christina McHale) are the "Upset Queens"

--the Belgians (Yanina Wickmayer, Kirsten Flipkens and, I suppose, Kim Clijsters) are the "Revelation Ladies"

--Elena Dementieva picks up the "Crash & Burn" (dis)honor for the second time this season, joining her RG selection after she went out in the 3rd Round in Paris

--Anastasia Rodionova, finally listed in the draw under "Australia" rather than "Russia," is the "Last Qualifier Standing" in the 3rd Round. Clijsters and King are the remaining wild cards.

--also, the mythical "It Girl" trophy is all but engraved with Melanie Oudin's name, but I'll hold off in making it official for at least a day. As for "Zombie Queen," both Dinara Safina and Venus Williams are in contention, though the Russian has to hold something of an edge after back-to-back dicey outings.

...and, finally, the Early-Round Awards can be found later in this Daily Backspin.

2006 Russians
2007 Ukrainians
2008 Slovaks
2009 Belgians
AO: Kazakhs
RG: Australians
WI: Italian veterans
US: Belgians

2006 (2nd Rd.) Eva Birnerova/CZE, Yulia Fedossova/FRA, Kirsten Flipkens/BEL, Varvara Lepchenko/RUS, Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
2007 (3rd Rd.) Alize Cornet/FRA, Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
2008 (4th Rd.) Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER
2009 (to 3rd Rd.) Anastasia Rodionova/AUS
AO: (2nd Rd.) Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL
RG: (3rd Rd.) Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR, Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
WI: (4th Rd.) Melanie Oudin/USA
US: (to 3rd Rd.) Anastasia Rodionova/RUS

2004 Russians
2005 Americans
2006 French
2007 Russians
2008 Chinese
2009 Americans
AO: French
RG: ex-RUS Kazakhs
WI: Germans
US: Americans

2007 Maria Sharapova/RUS (3rd Rd.-A.Radwanska/POL)
2008 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (2nd Rd.-Coin/FRA)
2009 Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA)
AO: Venus Williams/USA (2nd Rd.-Suarez-Navarro/ESP)
RG: Elena Dementieva/RUS (3rd Rd.-Stosur/AUS)
WI: Maria Sharapova/RUS (2nd Rd.-Dulko/ARG)
US: Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA)

7...RUS (Kirilenko-Kuznetsova-Petrova-Safina-Sharapova-Vesnina-Zvonareva)
4...USA (King-Oudin-Williams-Williams)
3...BEL (Clijsters-Flipkens-Wickmayer)
3...ITA (Errani-Pennetta-Schiavone)
2...CHN (Li-Zheng)
2...SVK (Hantuchova-Rybarikova)
1...ARG (Dulko)
1...AUS (Rodionova)
1...BLR (Azarenka)
1...CAN (Wozniak)
1...CZE (Kvitova)
1...DEN (Wozniacki)
1...ESP (Martinez-Sanchez)
1...ISR (Peer)
1...KAZ (Shvedova)
1...ROU (Cirstea)
1...UKR (K.Bondarenko)
*- of note, both the AUS & KAZ entries are players who formerly represented RUS

=EARLY ROUND AWARDS - 1st/2nd Rds.=
TOP PLAYER: Serena Williams/USA
...with so many other top contenders either gone or looking shaky, her chances of a third '09 slam title might be even better now than they were a few days ago. (RU: Flavia Pennetta/ITA & Victoria Azarenka/BLR... but both are in the bottom half with Serena)
RISER: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
...she might have timed her late summer form just right, but she has to get past Cirstea in the 3rd Round first. (ALSO: Kateryna Bonadarenko/UKR & Aleksandra Wozniak/CAN)
...that wild card the USTA gave her hasn't been wasted. (ALSO: Kirsten Flipkens/BEL & Anastasia Rodionova/AUS)
...she's always a threat when she's healthy. So far, so good. (ALSO: Nadia Petrova/RUS & Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP... Nadia is a match away from another shot at Maria, while MJMS gets an immediate Paris rematch with Serena)
FRESH FACE Melanie Oudin/USA slam moment is a lucky run, a second one signifies that American tennis might finally have it's long-delayed new female star. (ALSO: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL & Chang Kai-Chen/TPE)
DOWN: Elena Dementieva/RUS
...the slams have produced a great deal of head trauma for Punch-Sober in '09. (ALSO: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Ana Ivanovic/SRB)
COMEBACK: Kim Clijsters/BEL
...if Clijsters was in the top half, she'd now be the odds-on favorite to reach the final. (ALSO: Shahar Peer/ISR)

A STAR IS BORN, THE SEQUEL: 2nd Rd. - Oudin d. Dementieva 5-7/6-4/6-3
....with slam wins over two Top 5 players this season, Oudin's star only continues to rise.
A STAR TUMBLES: 1st Rd. - K.Bondarenko d. Ivanovic 2-6/6-3/7-6
...who would've thought that LAST YEAR's Open, when she had the quickest exit ever for a #1-seeded woman in Open history, would actually produce a better result than THIS YEAR'S for AnaIvo?
A STAR STUMBLES: 2nd Rd. - Shvedova d. Jankovic 6-3/6-7/7-6
...a little more than a year ago, the Serbs were playing against each other to determine who'd reach #1. They could have met again in the Round of 16 at this Open, but the only competition between the pair came down to which one would fail to convert the most match point attempts in their exit matches. For the record, AnaIvo failed on one, while Queen Chaos failed on two.

THE FIRST TIME IS THE CHARM: 1st Rd. - V.Williams d. Dushevina 6-7/7-5/6-3's not a slam until a Williams sisters performs a narrow escape. ESPN2's first-ever night match was a semi-surprising 2:44 thriller punctuated by a Venus knee injury and 3rd set comeback from a 3-1 deficit. So far, it's been the only night match that HASN'T been wrapped up in straight sets.
THE SECOND TIME IS... UMM, JUST LIKE THE FIRST (eventually): 2nd Rd. - Clijsters d. Bartoli 5-7/6-1/6-2
...Clijsters began her summer comeback with a thorough domination of Bartoli in Cincinnati. For a set, Bartoli looked as if she might have learned from her earlier mistakes. Maybe she had, but so did Clijsters, who proceded to erase the 1st set from her memory in record time.

Dinara Safina had to come back from a 3-0 3rd set deficit to defeat Olivia Rogowska in the 1st Round.
Safina had to come back from a 2-0 3rd set deficit to defeat Kristina Barrois in the 2nd Round.
Which is more than Elena, Jelena, Ana, Agnieszka, Sabine, etc. can say. There's a reason why Safina is #1, and it's largely because while she may not always look pretty in the early rounds of slams, she's recently made a habit of not losing until the tournament is in its closing days.

FIRST VICTORY: First, she was the WTT female MVP. Then, she got a wild card into the U.S. Open draw. As it turned out, Vania King was the first player to advance to the 2nd Round when Anastasiya Yakimova retired with a foot injury after three games of play. King continues to have something to sing about, too, as her upset of #15 Sam Stosur put her into the 3rd Round.
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (lost to Chang Kai-Chen/TPE)... it's the second time this season that the Estonian was the first seed dumped out of a slam. She suffered the same fate at Roland Garros.
UPSET QUEENS: Appropriately, the Americans have made a mark on this Open. Melanie Oudin (def. Pavlyuchenova & Dementieva), Vania King (Stosur), Bethanie Mattek-Sands (Benesova), Christina McHale (Hercog) and Shenay Perry (Niculescu) all notched wins in matches that many might not have predicted would go in their favor. Although, this group is mostly interchangable with...
REVELATION LADIES: The Belgians, from Kirsten Flipkens (def. Dokic & Medina-Garrigues) to Yanina Wickmayer (Razzano & Peng) to even former champ Kim Clijsters (Bartoli), are three-strong in the Final 32. And Justine is still practicing for those exhibitions.
ZOMBIE QUEENS (1r-2r): Venus Williams escaped a 3-1 3rd set hole versus Vera Dushevina in the 1st Round, but Dinara Safina (down a break in the 3rd against both Olivia Rogowska & Kristina Barrois) has her trumped so far.
CRASH & BURN (1r-2r): Elena Dementieva came in as the U.S. Open Series champion and virtual "co-favorite" to claim the title. Her Open ended after two matches, and she didn't even get to face off with Sharapova in the 3rd Round.
NON-WILLIAMS AMERICANS STILL STANDING: Vania King (WC) & Melanie Oudin are alive in the 3rd Round.
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: You can take the woman out of Russia but you can't take the Russian-level results out of the woman, I guess. Playing for Australia, ex-Hordette Anastasia Rodionova is the only qualifier who managed to reach the Final 32.

Serena getting the second-up night match on Night 3, the first time a women's match was the "main attraction" in the two decades-plus history of Open matches under the lights.
Maria Sharapova's nighttime attire on Ashe Stadium (somewhat like her '06 title-winning "little black dress," only with silvery accents).
Victoria Azarenka's quietly dominating first two rounds of play.
Marat's brotherly defense of Dinara.
Melanie Oudin's future.
And Maria Sharapova's improved serve (sometimes).
Jelena Dokic's grand slam season after the Australia Open.
Sabine Lisicki's bad luck.
The end of Sam Stosur's North American hard court season.
Sania Mirza's 6-0/6-0 loss to Flavia Pennetta.
The continued time-killing blather about Michelle Larcher de Brito's on-court noise level.
And Maria Sharapova's still-troubling serve (sometimes).
The sight of Nicole Vaidisova watching boyfriend Radek Stepanek's 2nd Round match from the stands on Day 4, a week after the former Top 10er and slam semifinalist was herself bounced from the first round of Open qualifying.
And, of course, Maria Sharapova's seemingly-inconsequential serve (since she still continues to win matches in straight sets despite sometimes giving away up to three or four points in a game thanks to double-faults).

There are so many potentially incredible stories still in play for this U.S. Open. Let's hope that at least a few of them pan out.

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Eva Hrdinova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR 7-6/4-6/7-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- Melanie Oudin/USA d. #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS 5-7/6-4/6-3
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.-Chang/TPE)
FIRST WIN: (WC) Vania King/USA (def. Anastasiya Yakimova/BLR)
UPSET QUEENS: The Americans
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Anastasia Rodionova/AUS (to 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA
ZOMBIE QUEEN: [Temporary: Venus Williams/USA down 7-6/3-1 vs. Vera Dushevina/RUS in 1st Rd.; Dinara Safina/RUS down 3-0 in 3rd set vs. Olivia Rogowska/AUS in 1st Rd., and 2-0 in 3rd set vs. Kristina Barrois/GER in 2nd Rd.]

All for Day 4. More tonight and tomorrow.


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