US OPEN SWEETHEART, MELANIE, KEEPS GOING

Opening night fireworks

Opening night fireworks

NEW YORK – From the sea-breezed grassblades of Rhode Island’s Newport Casino in 1881 to the steaming blue asphalt slabs of Flushing Meadows, the planet’s longest-running tennis show has settled in again for a fortnight’s duels with gut-strung cudgels.  Oh, yes, I know that Wimbledon is four years older, but was dark nine years for World Wars I and II.

Anyway, some call this convention of international nomads “General Hospital in Sneakers” because of the pileup of injuries at the far end of a far-too-long season.

Young giant Juan Martin Del Potro, beaten by a wrist injury,  will sadly watch TV at home in Argentina while others scrap for his title. Three-time champ Serena, wearing No. 1, has a gimpy right foot but refuses to say why. She is a no show.

But the official name remains US Open, the 129th edition of which sprang forth yesterday with      America’s darling (2009 version) returning to her playground in the canyon called Arthur Ashe Stadium.

That, of course, is the tiny (by today’s standards) 18-year-old Melanie, the Fair Maiden of Marietta.  A peach out of Georgia, 5-foot-6 inch Melanie Jennings Oudin decorated the big room with groundies as hot as the 88 degree late morning, and made folks wonder, and hope, that she could do it all over again — as No. 70 racing to the quarter-finals over four Russian bodies better known than hers.  Her private Cold War consumed Anastasia Pavlyachenkova, Elena Dementieva, 2006 champ Maria Sharapova, Petrova — Nos. 36-4-29-13 in succession on what seemed Melanie’s private pavement.  Eventually Caroline Wozniacki (the favorite this year) brought her back to earth with a thud and went on the be the finalist.

Opening night parade of flags of participants in the US Open

Opening night parade of flags of participants in the US Open

But not before Oudin had qualified with the press as a descendant of Cinderella in short shorts, surrounded by Capital E Expectations.  “The public’s and my own,” says she, who hasn’t made such a comparable big splash in between visits to the Apple.

She has moved up to a respectable No. 43, helped the US reach the Federation Cup final against Italy, and is fast-talking-thrilled to return to the scene of her crime against sizeably prominent foes.

So it is 11 AM Monday, and she shivers a little standing in the tunnel entrance to the world’s largest tennis parlor, no longer an unknown, “an underdog,” as she puts it.  “It’s great to be an underdog. You’re out there and you’re not expected to win.”  She was practically a one-gal kennel a year ago.

“But no more.  People know me.  Pretty cool to start off the US Open. First match.  But, yes, I was definitely nervous.  My stomach felt a little bit funny at the beginning.  It got a lot better in the second set.  No matter who I was playing it felt good to be back again.  I loosened up.”

The opponent, another  lady from the old East, Ukrainean Olga Savchuk, a qualifier ranked No. 143, hung in there to 3-3.  Then, suddenly, it was all over in an engagement that lasted 56 minutes.

“I could tell she was nervous, but she got much stronger,” says Savchuck, who comes from Donetz but now lives in the Bahamas.  Why the move?  “You would, too, if you ever had a winter in Donetz.”

Abruptly Oudin flew in Savchuk’s face like Russian winter.  She was a shotmaking blizzard on a summer day, and the points began to roll up like winning pinballs: 21 straight to close the first set and go up 4-0, 15-0 in the second.

She started to think about a so-called “golden set” (24-0 in points). “But I missed a shot,” she smiles, as ever winningly.  “Oh well.”

Though golden sets are rarer than truthful politicians, a bygone Bostonian Hall of Famer, Hazel Wightman, registered a “golden match,” 6-0, 6-0 (48-0 in points) over a Miss Huiskamp at Seattle in 1911.

Hazel, a 5-footer, would have loved the spunky Oudin, her footspeed and underdog retrieving — Labrador, anyone?  But Hazel was a volleyer, and females, alas, don’t do that any more.  Four volleys did appear — hurrah! — winners off Melanie’s racket.

She appeared in purple with a white bandeau, chartreuse sneakers on which the word COURAGE appeared.  Last year it was BELIEVE.

COURAGE?  “I wanted to do something different this time.  You have to have courage to believe in yourself.  I’m not going backwards.  I feel like I’m still young, still improving.  And I still have a lot of work to do.” Her golden hair swirls as she talks.  “Nobody expected anything when I got here last year.  Lost in the first round two years ago.

Friends, Cheryl and Kurt Sommer, from Santa Fe, NM at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Opening Day

Friends, Cheryl and Kurt Sommer, from Santa Fe, NM at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Opening Day

“I think I’ve grown up a lot, being more professional.      But,” she laughs, “my doctor told me I’m not going to grow any more.  Sad day.”

So she’s stuck amid the ever-towering crowd, eight inches shorter than Venus, for instance, and will have to depend on grit, heart and legs as  just about all the US has to offer other than the Sisters Williams.

“Every one has one Cinderella story, and mine was last year,” Melanie says.  “Everyone expects it again, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen”

She’s not copping a plea.  “I’ll have to fight hard, play well — and it will be good for me.”

Sometimes the toast of the town gets burned.  Remember rookie Pam Shriver, 16, going all the way to the final in 1978 — and losing in the first round to a nobody, Julie Harrington, a year later?  But Pam made it to the Hall of Fame.

For Melanie, tomorrow means yet another favored antagonist, from the East, also a Ukrainian, No. 33 Alona Bondarenko.

Oudin is 5-1 now at Ashe, and maybe she’ll continue kicking tail with the COURAGE slippers.

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