NEW YORK – So I look at my watch, and it says 2:04 PM, Thursday September 3. And I say, “Are you sure? You mean it’s only the fourth day of the US Open, and my pick for the women’s title is heading for the airport. Next stop – Moscow.
Last stop – Flushing Meadows, second round, where the world’s No. 4 tennis player, Elena Dementieva, got off while about 20,000 homebodies in a canyon called Arthur Ashe Stadium vigorously cheered her departure. It was nothing personal – none of the bygone, stale Cold War stuff. No, it was just the joyful improbability of a little kid out of Georgia knocking off a highly experienced 6-foot Russian.
Dementieva, 27, owns an Olympic gold (2008), was finalist here to Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2004, and held a match point against the champ, Serena, in the recent Wimbledon semis. Her pedigree is lengthy: six years in the top eleven, 14 singles titles, on and on.
Let’s see. The 5-foot-5 giant killer, Melanie Oudin, 17, is still trying to get out of high school (home schooled). She owns a pair of sneakers with BELIEVE painted on them, a suggestion of her boyfriend.
“I believed I could do it”, says Melanie the Fair Maid of Marietta (Georgia). “I played without fear, and don’t worry about anything. I just play my game and it usually works,” she says after catching up with Dementieva and winning, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, in 2 hours-45 minutes.
She has speed and strength that go well with her zippy, accurate groundies. A strained left thigh caused her to take an injury time-out for heavy strapping in the third set, but slowed neither her moves nor belief.
Dementieva, ever straight forward, was impressed by the kid. “So it’s just the beginning but it looks like she has a good future. She has great variety, a very solid game.”
You may remember Oudin at Wimbledon, a qualifier, No. 124, who jolted No. 6 Jelly Jankovic. She’s been working on the summer circuit, raising herself to No. 70.
Startlingly, No. 70 makes her the third highest American, poised on the other end of a chasm separating her from the Sisters Sledgehammer, Nos, 2-3 Serena and Venus. This tells you the barren state of affairs on the female side of tennis. Oudin is a welcome newcomer.
Melanie, a blonde who began her career as a munchkin playing on cracked and rumpled courts near her home, says, “I think it’s really cool to be called the third best American behind the Williams sisters. That’s incredible because I’ve watched them since I was a little girl. They’ve been, like, my idols. I’m really proud to be the third best American.”
She looks it, perky and pretty, right off a Norman Rockwell cover, ready to do more believing that would result in more such mammoth upsets. Her guy, Austin Smith, is along for this New York ride.
Melanie says, “It’s good to have a boyfriend, I think, in the tennis business. Because you’re, like, on the road so much, and you’re by yourself a lot. It’s good to have someone to talk to.” Roger Federer, who roomed with his wife, Mirka, for years, would agree.
Oudin comes from the home of “The Big Chicken,” a garish, towering 56-foot landmark, a concrete rooster at a KFC franchise. A reporter asked her if the upset made her bigger in Marietta than the monument to heartburn.
“I don’t know, the Big Chicken is pretty big,” she answers. She is smaller than most of her colleagues, but that doesn’t bother Melanie, who cites one of her favorites, the slight Justine Henin, US Open champion in 2003 and 2007. “Justine proved that you don’t have to be 6-foot-something to be No. 1. I like the way she played, using different shots and using the entire court. She figured out how to beat players that overpowered her, using variety and movement. She had a one-handed backhand, and mine is two-handed, but it’s still OK.”
Melanie grabbed the critical break in the third set with a barrage of forehands deep into the court. She was up 4-2, and hung on through a tense serving game conclusion, a time when such long shots — would-be saboteurs — often gulp.
“Elena is the highest ranked player I’ve ever played, so it was a big deal,” she smiles. “I got up to 40-0, and I was, like, all right. I have three chances to win this match, and she hit two winners. At 40-30 I was like all right, this could be my last chance to do it.
“So I needed to go for a big serve, and it went in…”
More than that it was a jammer, a service winner to the backhand.
She smiles again. “I just couldn’t believe it. It was amazing.”
So it was, and my pick headed for home, the fourth day of the US Open belonging to the Fair Maid of Marietta.