NEW YORK – Clean, free laundry every day. That was one of the topics as the first week of the US Open faded into another of it’s lovely daily sunsets.
But the sun has yet to set on the wonder child of the Open, who keeps washing tough, towering adversaries out of her golden hair with unfailing swings of her tennis racket.
Who knew of her a few days ago? But now she’s a headline honey – Melanie the Fair Maid of Marietta (Georgia).
What has Melanie Jennings Oudin got against Russians? The Cold War is over, but she made it too hot yesterday for the Siberian Siren, Maria Sharapova, just as she had for Elena Dementieva in the second round, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first.
A mite of 5-foot-5, Melanie has looked up but brought down tall timber with her racket: 5-10 Pavlyuchenkov, 6-foot Dementieva, 6-foot-2 Sharapova.
And suddenly 17-year-old, Melanie is making marvelous memories of 16-year-old Chris Evert in 1971 come alive. Just as Chrissie, steady as Plymouth Rock, floored better known, more experienced foes to roll all the way to the semifinals, Melanie appears to be in that groove, doing it the same way – charging from behind to startling triumphs. Thursday it was No. 4 Dementieva, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Then Hall of Fame-bound diva, Sharapova, holder of Australian, Wimbledon and US titles. That went to the tenacious Oudin, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, winning the last two games after Maria caught up at 5-5, finishing with a slashing forehand winner.
“Then I screamed and cried and…it was so unbelievable,” she recalls, and more than 20,000 onlookers in Ashe Stadium screamed along with her. “I had a blast playing out there,” says No. 70 Oudin.
Can you believe that her next opponent, the fourth rounder, will be another Russian, Nadia Petrova. Plus a quarter-final, if she makes it, could contain the 2004 champ, Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Like Evert, the kid is strictly a baseliner with belief in herself, and a killer instinct to go with her double-barrelled backhand.
“She plays good defense and controls the points,” says Sharapova. Not fully operative after shoulder surgery, Maria hurt her own cause by setting a female tournament record nobody would want: 21 double faults.
Who cared about the laundry? Turns out it was a good-natured surprise named Jesse Witten out of Naples, Fla.
“Clean, free laundry,” he grins.
That’s what his brief life in the tennis big league meant to Jesse, who bade farewell to the Open after an unlikely adventure that carried him to the third round and a nice piece of change.
Doubtful that Roger Federer, playing and winning in the arena next door, gives a thought to sweaty garments or how many millions are stacked in his coin collection.
But they were in the same playground for a while, and for a while No. 276 Witten was doing as well as No. 1 Federer. Presently that changed as Witten fell to No. 4 Novak Djokovic, 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, and Federer felled an old rival, the 2001 champ, No. 32 Lleyton Hewitt, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
A burly qualifier, who looks more suited to a football field – “No, it’s always been tennis” – Witten hung around longer than his ranking would have suggested. “Usually,” he says, “I’m not too comfortable with guys like Djokovic. I don’t feel that I belong. It’s a mindset. In my mind I don’t know how good I am, so it’s good to know I can play with them.
“I guess I’m a late bloomer,” says the 26-year-old with husky groundstrokes, a double-fisted backhand.” A tennis player who actually owns a college diploma – from Kentucky where he was an All-American four years – he heads back to the bushes, happy to be part of week one. Playing six matches was great, and I made enough money ($ 48,000) to keep me going the rest of the year.
“I was thinking about retiring, but I’ll keep going. I love the competition, and the life [in the minors] is lonely and difficult, mentally challenging, but all the fan support here encouraged me.
“You don’t have to do your own laundry here. It’s free every day. It’s nice.” Next stop Tulsa. He lost his clothing deal with Nike, but they ought to reconsider. He’s a bright guy, good for the game. Otherwise Jesse has a lot of plain 10-dollar T-shirts like he’s been wearing.
His best compliment came from the high-rolling Djokovic: “It was hard to tell who was No. 4 in our match.”
Federer, who travels by private jet, smiles at the free laundry story. “We all go through the same things, hoping for free lunch at tournaments. Hoping they’d give us enough practice balls and the practice courts weren’t so far away. It’s a big deal when they treat you well.”
But he won’t be looking for detergent in Tulsa any time soon.
Although Federer racked his 14th straight victory over Hewitt (16-8 overall), he said there was a special feeling colliding with the pugnacious Aussie on the court where both won titles, Lleyton in 2001, Roger every one since 2004. “We respect each other in a big way,” Roger says. “We played the first time when we were 16 years old in Zurich. The World Youth Cup in Switzerland. Some junior thing. I saved a match point to win, and here we are 11 years later and have played so many times on tour.”
There were winners and losers, rich and struggling, and 37,388 customers spread across the Billie Jean King Center, but nobody could touch Melanie, the Fair Maid of Marietta.