Monday, September 07, 2009

US.8- Georgian on My Mind

Shades of Henin, the word "Believe" on her shoes, a crying twin sister, falling Russian trees, three-set comebacks. Where would this U.S. Open be without Melanie Oudin?

Just call it "Melanie and the Erosion Principle." Remember, water can eventually carve out a grand canyon from rock. So what chance does a mere mortal have against a 17-year old American who doesn't know how to quit?

Even as everyone's been watching Oudin's exploits over the past week, not to mention as far back as at Wimbledon and the Fed Cup in February, it's been a common thing to search for reasons to question whether the strides made by the Marietta-born Mighty Mite named Melanie ("4M?" Really, this girl needs a Backspin nickname.) are truly "significant" or just a "summer fling." Is she big enough? Is she strong enough? Is she too young? Does she have the necessary "killer shot?" Is her serve's lack of authority an Achilles' heel? Can her defense and court sense make up the difference against a hard-serving power machine? Blahblahblahblah.

That ends here. She's proven herself against a murderers row of Russians in this tournament, displaying an ability to hit from the baseline with the big hitters and handle the serves of more powerful women, counterpunching well enough at the start of a return game to get herself in the meat of the point to allow all her other skills to come to the fore. I'm a believer.

It's gotta be the shoes!

I felt a bit at cross purposes going into this match, though. Oudin's run at this Open has dwarfed virtually every other story, and I didn't really want to see it end. On the other hand, I knew Nadia Petrova had the goods to pull through this one and I couldn't rightly root AGAINST her, not after pulling for her to be in such a position for so many years. Of course, Petrova has had the serve and doubles-perfected volleys for ages, but only two slam semifinals on clay to show for it for various reasons too numerous to recount with having to wipe sweat from the brow. At times during this Labor Day 4th Round matchup, Petrova displayed all that talent, too. But she, Oudin and everyone watching likely knew that the longer the match went the less chance the Russian had to win it. Petrova have to knock out the crowd favorite and seeming destiny's child before she HERSELF had a moment to think about the opportunity in front of her in the nearly-decimated top half of the women's draw.

In the opening set, Oudin got a break to quickly go up 1-0, but Petrova immediately leveled the set in the next game and took control of it on the back of her serve and aggressive ground strokes, breaking Oudin three straight times to take the stanza 6-1.

One might not think so or even realize it possible at first glance, but water works in deadly silence, seaping into the cracks and crevices, wearing away resistence until even a large piece of rock weakens, crumbles and fall aways in chunks, a victim of gravity and its own weight. All because of something as seemingly inocuous as water, and its close ally, time.

In the 2nd set, Petrova began to see her game slip, giving hope to the Ashe Stadium crowd that the clock wasn't necessarily going to strike midnight on America's Cinderella on this afternoon. But with Oudin up 3-1, Petrova put together eight consecutive points to knots things at 3-3, and twelve of thirteen to grab the lead at 4-3. She held two game points for a 6-1/5-3 lead, but Oudin wiggled out of the tight spot and stole a break. While Petrova was content to hug the baseline rather than more toward the net as she'd so successfully done in the 1st set, Oudin took the initiative herself. It payed off when she easily reached a ball in the short court to put away a winner and hold her serve for a 5-4 lead. In a tie-break for the set, Petrova's double-fault gave Oudin a 2-0 lead, and the mighty mite was off to the races. She took a 5-0 lead, and won 7-2.

"Believe," indeed.

Petrova started the deciding set by saving six break points in the first game, but when she finally decided to venture toward the net on the seventh Oudin surprised her with a successful lob to gain the break. Petrova briefly went on the attack again, breaking to tie things at 2-2, but then double-faulted on a game point and a break point in the next game. The relentless Oudin went up 3-2, and never looked back. Petrova's missed overhead gave Oudin a game and a 5-2 lead. She failed to serve out the match, but then immediately went up 40/love on Petrova's serve by winning long rallies while looking not the least bit tired, even though she was playing in her third consecutive three-set match on the biggest court in the world.

At this point, for her, winning was only a matter of time. Oudin won 1-6/7-6/6-3.

"Oh, Nadia." That's been a familiar refrain around these parts for a few years now. So, if you can, spare a moment for Petrova. For after seasons filled with injuries, illness, missed opportunities and untimely collapses, she might might have just lost her last best chance to truly make a mark in a slam.

While it's easy to be somewhat numb to them by now, the numbers that Oudin is stacking up are starting to become astounding. As a 17-year old player ranked #70 in the world, she's now 17-4 in three-set matches this season. She's lost the 1st set in seven of her last eight slam matches, but gone a combined 13-1 in the 2nd and 3rd sets in those contests. Six times this year she's lost the opening set in a slam match and come back to win it. Give her a few more days and this stuff might become the thing of legend. If it hasn't already, that is.

A few days ago, I would have sworn that you could squint and see Justine Henin out there on Ashe. Scrambling around, only wearing a visor rather than a cap. Throwing in a one-handed backhand on occasion, albeit of the slice variety rather than the sweeping beauty of La Petit Taureau's memorable stroke. But that's no longer the case. Now you must simply open your eyes and see Melanie Oudin... she's earned that right. No matter her inspiration or relative similarities, she's the one making the tennis world crane its collective neck to see what she's going to do next.

This is the type of moment in tennis time that breeds a whole new generation of young girls who dream to be tennis stars ("Mommy, I wanna play tennis like Melanie."). Surely, there were a few future champions "born" over the past week because of what Oudin has accomplished with a sunny disposition and a driving inner fire that won't let her give anything less than 100% one hundred percent of the time.

At least we can only hope.

...well, there was a true "Zombie" sighting last night. After saving six match points in the 2nd set against Vera Zvonareva, Flavia Pennetta went on to win the 3rd set at love. Meanwhile, Zvonareva was ripping tape off her legs, slapping her knee while sitting on the court, slamming her racket into the net post, burying her head in a towel and exclaiming "I hate this crowd" as she walked off the court in defeat. In other words, the usual.

It seems like this entire Open has been a one step forward, two steps back proposition for all the Hordettes, doesn't it?

The theme continued on Night 8, too, as the only remaining slam champion/finalist in the top half of the draw was the latest top seed bounced from the tournament. Roland Garros champ Svetlana Kuznetsova led Caroline Wozniacki by a set and 4-3, but that's when her nerves started to fray and she pulled back just enough to let the Dane back into the match. C-Woz took a 2nd set tie-break, then soon found herself serving for the match at 5-3 in the 3rd. She was broken, then held match points at 5-4 and 6-5 that the Contessova swatted away by returning to the hit first and ask questions later style of power game that helped her dominated the opening set. In the deciding tie-break, Wozniacki grabbed and early lead and never gave it up, winning to advance to her first career slam QF. Said a laughing Wozniacki about her upcoming meeting with Oudin, "Hopefully someone from the crowd will cheer for me."

ESPN2 made note that Wozniacki's nickname around the tour is "Sunshine." My, that might just make her quarterfinal match with Oudin positively blinding. Really, since it's impossible to wish ill will on either one, it's something of a win-win situation no matter who gets the victory. The victor will be the favorite to reach the final, and no one will have seen her coming a week ago.

With Kuznetsova's loss, the Russians' late New York summer of discontent is now officially over. The proof in the pudding? Even with all the Russians in the draw, none managed to reach the final eight. The last time that happened was at RG in 2002 (the last Russian-free Open QF came back in 2001). other 4th Round action: as it turned out, the road to the quarterfinals DID NOT go through the Bondarenko sisters. Well, at least if your name is Gisela Dulko. Last week, the Argentine defeated Alona Bondarenko, but today Kateryna tossed her out on her ear 6-0/6-0. Meanwhile, wouldn't you know it, after I picked Yanina Wickmayer to be a surprise slam semifinalist at Wimbledon a few months ago, she's now one match from actually doing it. At the U.S. Open, yeah... but still. As usual, it's better to be a little early on a player than late, I always say. The Belgian defeated Petra Kvitova today as the Czech followed the time-honored pattern of a young player being unable to follow up a big upset with a win against a lesser-ranked opponent the next time out.

Which is just another reason to knock down doors to see Oudin in action.

...well, it's a SHOWDOWN. #1-seeded Black/Huber and #6-seeded Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez, arguably the two best full-time doubles teams on tour on '09, will face off against each other in the doubles quarterfinals.

...and, finally, after neglecting to mention it over the weekend, how great was it to hear Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors broadcasting the night matches together on Tennis Channel? Connors is sort of new to the broadcasting gig (though his interview last week with Marat Safin, who seemed genuinely touched when Connors told him how much he's enjoyed watching him play, was great largely because of his lack of "slickness" in the process), but Martina has been doing it off and on for years. She's always been a refreshingly honest and blunt -- which sort of go together, I guess -- commentator with a good sense of humor who rarely if ever gets bogged down in cliches or falls into the trap of simultaneously playing the role of tennis "expert" while matter-of-factly mentioning that she's "never heard" of a player who she really should know (many "big name" announcers make an annoying habit of that last one). Hey, last night she even opened up the ol' WTA Player Guide on air to make sure that she was attributing Zvonareva with the correct slam doubles title. Yeah, my heart fluttered a little bit when she pulled that one. Haha.

Yanina Wickmayer/BEL vs. Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR
Melanie Oudin/USA vs. #9 Caroline Wozniacki
#18 Li Na/CHN vs. (WC) Kim Clijsters/BEL
#10 Flavia Pennetta/ITA vs. #2 Serena Williams/USA

#1 Roger Federer/SUI def. #14 Tommy Robredo/ESP
#12 Robin Soderling/SWE def. #8 Nikolay Davydenko/RUS
#4 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #15 Radek Stepanek/CZE
#10 Fernando Verdasco/ESP def. John Isner/USA
#7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #11 Fernando Gonzalez/CHI
#13 Gael Monfils/FRA vs. #3 Rafael Nadal/ESP
#6 Juan Martin Del Potro/ARG vs. #24 Juan Carlos Ferrero/ESP
#16 Marin Cilic/CRO vs. #2 Andy Murray/GBR

#1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) vs. #6 Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez (ESP/ESP)
#3 Stosur/Stubbs (AUS/AUS) vs. #8 Mattek-Sands/Petrova (USA/RUS)
#11 Yan/Zheng (CHN/CHN) vs. #4 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)
#10 Kirilenko/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) vs. #13 Kleybanova/Makarova (RUS/RUS)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Ball/Guccione (AUS/AUS)
#4 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) vs. #7 Moodie/Norman (RSA/BEL)
Ljubicic/Llodra (CRO/FRA) vs. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH)
#5 Mirnyi/A.Ram (BLR/ISR) vs. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB)

#1 Huber/M.Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Gullickson/Parrott (USA/USA)
#5 Hsieh/Ullyett (TPE/ZIM) vs. #2 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND

WI: Venus Williams, USA
AO: Jelena Jankovic, SRB
RG: Dinara Safina, RUS
WI: Nicole Vaidisova, CZE
US: Jelena Jankovic, SRB
AO: Dinara Safina, RUS
RG: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
WI: Dinara Safina, RUS
US: Flavia Pennetta, ITA

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 (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Melanie Oudin/USA
CRASH & BURN: #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (saved 6 MP in 4th Rd. vs. Zvonareva/RUS)

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew you'd put an Oudin pic :)

A night match for Serena again!

Tue Sep 08, 12:21:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I was hoping to find one where you could read "believe," but I couldn't find one without taking more time than I was willing to waste. :(

Tue Sep 08, 12:26:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kimberly said...

Petrova has two semifinals, French 2003 and 2005

Tue Sep 08, 12:43:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jeppe said...

Noone saw Carolne Wozniacki coming a week ago? Well, here in Denmark we've been waiting for her Grand Slam breakthrough for two years! And Spice Girl Mel C even wrote a song, Carolyna, for her in 2007 (she didn't really, but it's a fine song, and she got the pronunciation right, have a listen). Go Caro!

Tue Sep 08, 10:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Kimberly- See, I should follow Navratilova's lead and refer to the Guide so that I don't slip up like that. Serves me right for taking what someone on ESPN said as gospel, I guess. I should known better.

Jeppe- Well, we who like to see C-Woz do well saw her coming. I, too, have been waiting for this QF. :) As I noted the other day, no one was even talking about her in this tournament here in the U.S. until last night. I was a little worried there for a while against Kuznetsova, but then I realized that she always kind of wins by hanging around long enough to take advantage of the opportunities given to her. It happened again. Wozniacki/Oudin is going to be fun, and interesting since both tend to make a habit of playing the counterpuncher's role a lot of times. Their strategy against a somewhat similar player will be telling.

Tue Sep 08, 10:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jeppe said...

Yes, Caro v. Mel tomorrow could be the start of a tasty rivalry for years to come, though I can't see either of them ever getting to #1 in the world - but less will do, no?

By the way, I think Wozniacki will play more aggressively in the 1/4-final, and try to dominate Oudin. If she does, I doubt your girl can keep up, but who knows in this Open?

Imagine if Flavia beats Serena tonight, which could happen, that would really bust the draw wide open, as if it wasn't already!

Tue Sep 08, 11:57:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, you know, I was thinking last night just that very thing. Everyone is caught up in the stories of Oudin, Clijsters, etc. But the fact remains that Serena is moving through the draw with little trouble and is easily the favorite to win the title. In the end, the odds are that we'll have a fairly "orderly" finish on Saturday.

But if she were to lose... wow. As crazy as this tournament has been as it is, it'd be total chaos if Serena were no longer in the draw.

Tue Sep 08, 12:46:00 PM EDT  

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