Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Elena Dementieva. Maria Sharapova. Nadia Petrova.
The list reads like a Russian tennis encyclopedia--the junior mighty, the once-mighty, the U.S. Open Series winner, and the 2006 U.S. Open champion. All out of the 2009 U.S. Open, all removed by the player Tennis Channel has nicknamed Little Miss Upset.
At a U.S. Open that is already bursting with thrilling moments, Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old American, has provided some of the most spectacular. Today, she was up against a woman who is not only one of the tour's best servers, but also one of the tour's best volleyers. Lucky for Oudin, Nadia Petrova is also one of the tour's more mentally fragile competitors.
Petrova, serving big and coming to the net to make expert volleys, easily won the first set 6-1, overwhelming Oudin, and suffering no injury from Oudin's mediocre serve. To the casual onlooker, the scene looked like the prelude to a flight back to Georgia for the American. But to those who have been paying attention, it looked like a pattern: Lose the first set to an important Russian, hang in for a while, and--as the shoes say--believe.
Belief may be Oudin's greatest attribute, but it takes more than belief to win a big tennis match. Superior movement and a cracking forehand help, too. And in this match, Oudin's backhand defense was good enough to set up just enough winners for her to keep competing.
Then there was Petrova. The 13th seed, who is loaded with talent, is known for not being able to hold herself together mentally when things get tough. Such was the case today, when even her net points began turning into errors. Spewing balls every which way, Petrova looked confounded by her own inability to play the sharp points she had played in the opening set.
Two points from going down 3-5 in the second set, Oudin reversed the momentum and was able to stay in and play in a tiebreak. It seemed almost inevitable, after Petrova double-faulted, that Oudin would win that tiebreak. She quickly went up 5-0, and won it 7-2. She arrived on the court for the third set looking amazingly fresh and confident, and hit groundstokes into corners while her opponent continued to make errors. And just like she did against Dementieva and Sharapova, Oudin pulled off a three-set win, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3.
Oudin's performance at the Open is not like anything we have seen in a while. After she defeated Petrova, she placed her palms against her hat, and for a moment--in that stance--she looked just like her tennis idol, Justine Henin.
People like to talk about a "dream run," but this one really does seem like it is part of a dream. Every time I write Oudin's name on my drawsheet, I do so with a certain amount of awe. When she has mastered the weaknesses in her game (which I believe she will do), what will she be able to do? She has won 17 of 21 three-set matches, she doesn't seem bothered by huge occasions, and she is only 17. Her coach says he's hoping she'll grow another inch, but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in depth. Ask any Russian.