Friday, September 2, 2011

American Tennis - Rising From The Dead?

It wasn't all that long ago that American tennis - both men's and women's - was considered to be dead.

Let's take a trip down memory lane to the 2009 U.S. Open. Andy Roddick, the # 5 seed on the men's side, shocking lost in the third round to rising American John Isner. Isner then turned around and lost in four sets to 10th seed Fernando Verdasco.

Isner was the only American male to make the fourth round.

James Blake, then the # 21 seed, was swept away by 14th seed Tommy Robredo in straight sets in the third round. Mardy Fish didn't play. Donald Young lost in the first round to Robredo, his third straight first round loss at this event and for the fifth time in six years since turning pro. And Sam Querrey, the # 22 seed, lost in the third round to then # 12 seed and current top 10 player Robin Soderling.

The women didn't do much better. Third seeded Venus Williams lost in the fourth round to eventual champion Kim Clijsters, a wild card after her return from maternity leave. Only two other American women made the second week and both flamed out embarrassingly; Melanie Oudin's Cinderella story was stopped abruptly in the quarterfinals by eventual finalist and current world # 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-2. And Serena Williams, the # 2 seed, was slayed by Clijsters just like her sister - but she had a Chernoybl-level meltdown at the end of the semifinal match, cursing out the chair umpire after a foot fault while serving to stay in the match to incur a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct that cost her the match.

Going forward, things looked bleak for the state of the sport in this country. On the men's side, Roddick and Blake were showing their age and Querrey and Isner didn't appear to have good enough all around games to take their places as the torchbearers for American men's tennis. Fish wasn't just a has-been, he was a never-was. And Young was the Freddy Adu of men's tennis - once the top juniors player in the world, hyped up to be the next big thing before he was out of high school and ended up as a horrific bust after turning pro at the age of 14. Surmising all of this, the Davis Cup team had lost in the quarterfinals to Croatia and hadn't won the event since 2007.

And on the women's side, the Williams sisters had both embarrassed themselves and it was only Oudin's magical run which was a positive to be taken from the tournament, but even as it was happening, an objective observer noted that her shock victories over Aggie Radwanska at Wimbledon and then Maria Sharapova in round 3 and then Nadia Petrova in the round of 16 were smoke-and-mirrors and a focus, non-shaky Wozniacki blew her away. She's yet to get out of the second round of a slam since and lost in the first round of every slam in 2011.

But those who think there's no hope for Oudin have been extensively proven wrong by the overall rise of American tennis to the surprise of the world. Here in 2011, Fish has improbably jump-started his career to rise to # 7 in the world and has truly grabbed the aforementioned torch, Roddick is still sitting there at 21 and is facing young American blue chipper Jack Sock tonight and Isner blew through a veteran American, Robby Ginepri, to get to the third round where he'll face another American, Alex Bogomolov, a veteran who came back from two sets to love in the first round before winning in straight sets today. He too is having breakthrough success - this is his first U.S. Open since 2006, his fifth straight first round loss. In fact, he hadn't played in any grand slams until this year's French Open. Then he upset the 25 seed, Juan Ignacio Chela, in straight sets in the second round at Wimbledon and now he's made it to the first weekend at his second straight slam. At 28, he and the 29-year-old Fish have proven that it's never too late to make something of yourself in a game that's becoming increasingly younger.

And then there's what Young did today.

After breaking his first round losing streak (which continued last year), he faced the daunting task of 14th seed Stanislas Wawrinka, a quarterfinalist here last year, Young fell behind two sets to one, winning all of five games in the second and third set after winning a first set tiebreak. It was there that he was pronounced out of gas and, well, dead.

But somehow, he rallied. With an electric Court 17 - a brand-new show court with a thumping atmosphere - cheering him on, he held to open the fourth and then broke Wawrinka to go up 2-0. The Swiss # 2 - to a guy named Federer, of course - broke right back and it was there where Young could have lost his nerve. But instead, he broke back for 3-1 and held the rest of the way to force a fifth set.

Young had only been in one other fifth set in U.S. Open history - a 2008 opening round loss to Blake. He himself would admit after the match he didn't think he had the fitness to emerge victorious. But he battled his way to a fifth set tiebreak - and then it happened.

Young broke to open the tiebreak. Then he held both his serves for 3-0. Then he broke again. And then he broke again.

It was stunning to watch. The crowd roared more and more with each consecutive point he won. He played exceptionally clean tennis during it. Despite 72 unforced errors in the match, he only committing his first error of the breaker while up 6-0. The next point, he smacked an inside-out forehand winner and celebrated an improbable upset. In just 4 hours and 20 minutes, 22-year-old Donald Young - the same age as this blog's creator - "became a man," as Patrick McEnroe tweeted right after the match.

Young's victory was the first upset of a seeded player by an American male. But in the past two days, it's been all about the unseeded American women. Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, Vania King and Irina Falconi all pulled off upsets over seeded players.

King, at the age of 22, is the veteran of the group (as a fellow 22-year-old, that's kind of a horrifying thought.) Typically a doubles star - she's the reigning doubles champ here with Yaroslava Shvedova - she matched her 3rd round performance from a couple of years ago by dominating 29th seed Jarmila Gajdovsova 6-2, 6-0. Next round, she'll face an opponent who also won her 3rd round match 2 and love - Wozniacki. That's first up tomorrow morning at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Falconi - who was born in Ecuador - turned 21 in early May and has played her first full year of slams after a wild card in last year's Open. She won just three games in her first round match against Flavia Pennetta - who shocked Sharapova earlier today. On Monday, Falconi came from a set down to beat Klara Zakpolova for her first ever grand slam victory. Then two days later, she did the same to stun 14th seed Dominika Cibulkova - a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, like Oudin two years ago, she was blown away today by 21st seed Sabine Lisicki and her booming serve which is among the best on tour, 0 and 1.

Then there's McHale and Stephens - the two who have made the biggest waves of the group. McHale, a 19-year-old from Teanick, New Jersey - has had a terrific summer. She upset 28 seed Ekaterina Makarova in three sets at Wimbledon to record her first ever slam victory. Then she followed that up by shocking Wozniacki in the second round of the Cincinnati Masters 6-4, 7-5. Now here at the Open, she beat Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak before recording her second victory over a top 10 player in two weeks, stunning 8 seed Marion Bartoli 7-6, 6-2 - dominating the second set to take out the French Open semifinalist and Wimbledon quarterfinalist in arguably the upset of the tournament until Sharapova went down today. She went out meekly to Maria Kirilenko tonight 2 and 3, but there's no doubt the future's bright for her.

Unlike the rest of the group, Stephens had never played at the U.S. Open before this week. In fact, she had never played in a grand slam until this year's French Open, where she qualified and lost in the first round. But late Tuesday afternoon, she won a third set tiebreak over Reka-Luca Jani for her first ever slam victory and then yesterday, she powered her way past 23rd seed Shahar Peer 6-1, 7-6 - closing out the tiebreak with some booming forehands that prove that the African American from Ft. Lauderdale who cites the Williams sisters as her inspirations might be able to develop their kind of power that can give her, a former junior star like fellow African American Young, success on the senior circuit.

And as for Serena? After recovering from multiple major injuries over the past year and change, she's dropped all of three games in two matches and looks to be a favorite to win Venus pulling out with a mysterious flu-like illness yesterday against Sabine Liscki has been the only disappointment.

But with the performances of her sister as well as the up-and-coming players, it looks like American tennis - men's and women's - will prosper with or without her.

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