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FLUSHING MEADOWS, NEW YORK--- As I look back upon the first five days of the 2009 U.S. Open, I find myself struck by the fact that there were so few surprises among the men. As Rafael Nadal prepared to play his second round match on Friday night, all of his neighbors among the top 8 seeds had advanced with relative ease into the third round. Not only that, but all of the second tier--- the seeds placed between No. 9 and No. 16--- were still in business. Form was holding up, leaving us with some very appealing possibilities for the second week as the best players in the sport edged closer to gripping battles against each other.
But the women were a different story. On Friday, in the second round, the immensely promising yet still emerging Victoria Azarenka was toppled unexpectedly by No. 26 seed Francesca Schiavone in three sets. That was a significant yet mild upset. The day before, upsets of a much higher order took place. No. 5 seed Jelena Jankovic--- the 2008 Open finalist--- bowed out in an agonizingly close second round contest against world No. 55 Yaroslava Shvedova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6. Jankovic had won Cincinnati over the summer. She seemed to be recovering much of her old confidence, but this will be a significant blow to her pride and self assurance.
And yet, the Jankovic and Azarenka surprises paled in comparison to the departure of No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva, the woman many in the game’s cognoscenti believed was ready to break through here and capture her first major crown. Dementieva came into this tournament with high hopes. She had been victorious in Toronto, where she upended Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to secure the title and finish her hard court preparation for the U.S. Open. Dementieva had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in the summer of 2008. She had reached the U.S. Open final of 2008. She had also been the runner-up at the 2004 French Open.
Moreover, Dementieva had travelled within a single point of the Wimbledon final back in July, garnering a match point before gallantly bowing 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 against Serena Williams in a phenomenal Centre Court showdown. So had every reason to believe in herself and her chances at this U.S. Open. She simply had no way of knowing just how formidable an adversary she would confront in the second round. She faced a 17-year-old American on Arthur Ashe Stadium who was fearless and uninhibited. She played a kid from Georgia who was appearing in only the second U.S. Open and fourth Grand Slam event of her promising career.
I am referring, of course, to Melanie Oudin, who gave the American fans their most exhilarating moments of the early days by clipping Dementieva 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Those who did not see the match in its entirety were probably deceived into believing that this was simply another failure for Dementieva. After all, how could she lose to a player ranked No. 70 in the world at the last major of 2009 after playing such outstanding tennis all year long?
The answer is not complicated. Oudin is not the third best player in her nation already without merit. Consider what she has done this year. She cut down world No. 29 Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada in Charleston. That was a definite sign of things to come. At Wimbledon, she stopped No. 6 seed and 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in a spirited three set meeting on Court 3, earning rave reviews from most of the critics who witnessed that performance, proving to herself and her boosters that she has the capacity to do stupendous things in this game over the next five to ten years, demonstrating to the other players that she will be a force to be reckoned with.
The win over Jankovic took Oudin into the round of 16 at the world’s preeminent tennis tournament. That was the first time I saw Oudin play, and I was so overjoyed by her display that I devoted a column to her and reflected on the bright path ahead I envisioned for her. I expected Oudin to celebrate a productive summer after doing so well at Wimbledon, but that was not really the case. During the U.S. Open Series, she qualified for three events--- Stanford, Los Angeles and Cincinnati--- but she took on three players with the experience and the tactical acuity to bring her down. Eventual champion Marion Bartoli stopped Oudin at Stanford; the tenacious Daniela Hantuchova defeated Oudin in L.A.; and then 2008 French Open victor Ana Ivanovic beat Oudin at Cincinnati.
Those were, however, understandable losses against seasoned competitors, and not coming through in those confrontations did not discourage Oudin. She won her first round match at the Open with utter ease, dismissing world No.36 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 6-2.That set the stage for the second round meeting with Dementieva. They opened the program on Ashe Stadium this past Thursday morning, and it was apparent from the outset that this was going to be a hard fought, well played, very absorbing battle. From the outset, Oudin revealed that she respected but was not in awe of Dementieva. She felt she could stand toe to toe with the highly regarded Russian, and not be found wanting.
In the opening set, Oudin was constantly under pressure, but she did not allow Dementieva much room for comfort. In the first game, Oudin double faulted at break point down to dig a hole for herself. Dementieva was playing superb tennis, getting her customary depth off the ground, making it awfully trying for Oudin to find a way to play as aggressively as she would have liked. Dementieva did revert to her old habit of double faulting too often, throwing in two in her opening service game but holding on nonetheless.
Dementieva advanced to 3-1 but Oudin caught her at 3-3. But at 3-3, 30-30, Oudin drove an inside-out forehand wide and then she lost her serve when Dementieva coaxed her into a mistake off the backhand. Once more, Oudin fought back with conviction to reach 4-4, and then she held comfortably for 5-4. Dementieva was not unduly worried about having to serve to save the set. Despite trailing 15-30, she dug in gamely as Oudin took some chances off the forehand that did not work. Dementieva grabbed the next two games to win that set, succeeding with her excellent ball control. Oudin had made that first set close, but had fallen narrowly short.
But Oudin was undismayed. She broke for a 3-1 second set lead by sending one of her patented flat forehands deep crosscourt to set up a soft roller crosscourt off the same side. The crowd erupted. Oudin was exuberant. She moved to 5-2, raising the volume of her aggression, slowly but surely finding ways to break down the Dementieva forehand. A third set seemed certain. But Dementieva quickly took two love games in a row to close the gap to 5-4. Dementieva had the chance to serve her way to 5-5, and perhaps salvage a straight set win. But, serving in the tenth game, she faltered. A forehand unforced error into the net put her down 0-15, and then a backhand unprovoked mistake made it 0-30. Oudin sensed a big opportunity, and reached triple set point by using a scorching inside-out forehand to set up a forehand winner down the line.
Two points later, Oudin had the set. She then opened the final set by holding from deuce for 1-0. She then won another long game for 2-0. The increasingly upbeat audience in Ashe Stadium began cheering with more and more intensity. But Oudin lost her serve in the third game and then called for the trainer to treat a bothersome leg injury. Perhaps that created a sense of urgency in Oudin. She came back out on court and immediately broke Dementieva for 3-1. But the drama was not over. Oudin lost her serve in the next game and started cramping. The trainer returned at the changeover.
Oudin won a spectacular point to break again for 4-2. Dementieva kept trying to disrupt the American’s rhythm with one slice after another, but Oudin wasn’t thrown off guard. She kept driving the ball harder and deeper until she had the chance to move forward for a high forehand volley winner. That was the moment that mattered. She held on twice from there to complete a rewarding and gutsy 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 triumph. Oudin made good on 12 of 19 approaches to the net, and connected for 30 winners, eight more than Dementieva. She played a remarkably mature match, waiting for just the right openings to unleash her big forehand.
“I had to win the match,” said Oudin. “I didn’t think she gave it to me.”
Dementieva was in accord. She said, “I think she played really well. She was very positive and going for her shots, going for the winners. It just was a very solid game from her. She was playing really aggressively, really enjoying the atmosphere, the crowd support, and really going for winners.”
Oudin got to the heart of the matter when she said, “During the match I had the confidence. I mean, I was right there with her the entire time. I didn’t think she was blowing me off the court. She wasn’t hitting winners right and left on me. We had long points. I was right there with her. I knew if I could play well and keep being aggressive and staying in there, I could do it.”
So now Oudin will play Maria Sharapova. Win or lose, that will be a significant learning experience to play the three time Grand Slam tournament winner. In some respects, she reminds me of Sharapova with her ferocity on court, her almost tangible desire to win, her enormous willpower. As was the case when she ousted Jankovic at Wimbledon, Oudin was quietly ferocious, conveying a powerful sense of self, signaling that she believes she can step out on the court with any woman in the world and hold her own.
In my view, this win over Dementieva was even more impressive than the victory against Jankovic at the All England Club. She demonstrated emphatically that the Jankovic moment was not simply good fortune and opportunism. To me, this win will thoroughly convince Oudin that she belongs. It was the second time around for Oudin with a big victory over a leading player at a major. She has the mindset of a champion. Someday, her name will appear on the trophy at one of the Grand Slam events, and that will happen within three years. In the meantime, I look forward to watching her keep moving beyond herself into the towering player she will one day become.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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