September 7, 2009

While You Were Otherwise Occupied...

I admit that I, like almost all American tennis fans, have become a huge cheerleader for Melanie Oudin over the past week. What the young Georgia native -- Georgia, like the peach, not like the former Soviet Republic -- has done in defeating three straight seeded players at this year's U.S. Open has been nothing short of spectacular.

But while we were all distracted by the ingenue, throwing her arms up in the air time and time again in victory, there were a couple other players quietly making their way through the draw.

Last night Flavia Pennetta, the best women's player from Italy, took on the fourth best player from Russia, Vera Zvonareva, ranked way down at #7 in the world. Pennetta has had a great summer, winning three straight trophies on a couple different surfaces and notching wins over Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams along the way. Zvonareva has done well too in 2009, taking home the title in Indian Wells after beating defending champion Ana Ivanovic in straight sets.

Vera took the lead early in their fourth round matchup, breaking Flavia four times in the first set and closing it out in just thirty-three minutes. She held a couple of match points in the second, but was forced into a tiebreak where she ceded a couple more. That was when things fell apart for the Russian. She took a long bathroom break where she presumably retaped her knees, but then came back even worse for wear. She tore off her supports while on the sidelines, argued with the chair umpire when she wasn't allowed to call for a trainer, and drew a code violation after she cursed herself (and likely the ump) loudly.

Throughout the drama Pennetta kept her cool, looking like the far more experienced player, and let her opponent make all the errors. In the third set she won every point on her first serve and only lost two points on serve total. In another half hour she'd bageled Vera and earned her second straight quarterfinal in New York, where she'll face an intimidating Serena Williams.

On the other end of the draw, a couple of similarly new-ish players are also finding some big success. Belgian Yanina Wickmayer won her first Tour title in Estoril a few months back, but she's still had to qualify for many of the lead-up U.S. Open Series tournaments. Still she opened her second appearance at Flushing Meadows by beating sixteenth-seed Aravane Rezai, immediately matching her best ever Major appearance.

She surpassed that mark quickly and today got further than I'm sure she ever thought she would. She took on Petra Kvitova in her fourth round, the woman who just a few days ago "stunned" top-seeded Dinara Safina on the day of upsets. After dropping the first set, Wickmayer regrouped to force a third and, like Pennetta before her, kept her cool. In the final hour of play she committed half the unforced errors and minimized her double faults. And for the first time in her career, she earned a spot in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

There was also a valiant effort by Kateryna Bondarenko, who seemed to be out for revenge this afternoon. She took on Gisela Dulko, the Argentine who'd eliminated her older, seeded sister Alona in the second round. While the pair always seem to have a volatile relationship -- as doubles partners, there are often some loud exchanges on the same side of the court -- the younger sister did her sibling proud today. Kateryna has been a wily player all season -- besides beating Ana Ivanovic in the first round, she's also taken swipes at Patty Schnyder, Aggie Radwanska and Venus this year. And over Dulko she was unrelenting -- she served five aces to none, made six errors to twenty and scored seventeen winners to seven. In forty-seven minutes she avenged her sister's loss and marked her own best-ever Slam run.

And then there's one of my favorites, yet another teenager -- Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki. She's been no stranger to big stages -- in her short career she's won six titles, and less than ten days ago repeated her champion's run in New Haven's Pilot Pen. She's also no stranger to big players -- already this year she's beaten Elena Dementieva and Pennetta twice. Already in New York she's gotten her footing, finally beating her doubles partner Sorana Cirstea after losses in their last two meetings.

Tonight she faced her biggest challenge, sixth seed and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, surprisingly the last Russian standing at Flushing Meadows. After being demolished in the first set, 6-2, Caroline somehow sturdied herself in the second. Though she failed to serve out the set, she did dominate the tiebreak. Then again, she was broken when she had the 5-3 lead and squandered a few match points on Svetlana's serve before getting to another tiebreak. I thought for sure she'd let the momentum shift -- I mean, how could another teenager keep it together after such a disappointment. But in a thrilling decider that capped off one of the hardest-hitting women's matches I've ever seen, Wozniacki came out on top, 7-3 as Kuznetsova pounded a ball into the net.

Caroline had a huge amount of crowd support tonight, but she may have fewer followers when she faces Oudin in the quarters. In her post-match interview, she admitted, "Hopefully some from the crowd will cheer for me!" I, for one, will have some trouble choosing who to root for -- but I know I'm going to be watching some fantastic athletics!

And, by the way, let's not under-emphasize what all these matches have done to elevate the quality of women's tennis this year. We started with that amazing Serera-Dementieva semi, and then there was the Jelena Jankovic-Dinara Safina final in Cincinnati, both of which provided us with some of the best shot-making I've seen in a long time.

These girls can hit!

And I can't wait to watch what's left to come!

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