Saturday, July 4, 2009
Red, white and blue Wimby weekend
By Ravi Ubha Special to ESPN.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- It's not all doom and gloom in American tennis. The accommodating lawns at Wimbledon are proof of that.
Two years ago, U.S. men were embarrassed (more than usual, that is) on the dreaded, heavy clay of the French Open, going 0-for-9 in Round 1, an all-time low. But the Americans are on course for a rare double at the sport's most famous tournament. Fittingly, it's happening on the Fourth of July weekend, a real Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Serena Williams downed sister Venus 7-6 (3), 6-2 on Saturday to snatch the crown from her big sister, while resurgent Andy Roddick battles Swiss behemoth Roger Federer in Sunday's men's final. Not since 2000, when Venus Williams and Pete Sampras triumphed, have Americans won both of the premier titles in southwest London.
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U.S. Davis Cup stalwarts Bob and Mike Bryan played in the men's doubles final after the Serena-Venus match; Serena and Venus love Centre Court so much they returned for the women's doubles final. The brothers, though, lost a tough four-setter to No. 2 seeds Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic.
Besides the usual suspects, a gritty, intelligent Melanie Oudin ventured to the fourth round, knocking off prominent Serb Jelena Jankovic along the way. Pint-sized Jesse Levine, a lefty with good hands, made it to the third, sending charismatic Russian Marat Safin closer to retirement. More success was, crucially, found in juniors.
The feats of Georgia's Oudin, 17, and Florida's Levine, 21, were more impressive considering they had to endure qualifying.
"It's been terrific for the Americans, especially the ones that are coming up," said U.S. Federation Cup captain and ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. "I'll take it. We've had a really good tournament. All that gives a boost to the next generation coming up. I think it really pushes and encourages them, motivates them."
Serena, now an 11-time Grand Slam champion, and Venus squared off in a fourth Wimbledon final, and Roddick moved into his third. Federer showed up for Roddick's first two appearances, prevailing in 2004 and 2005. The Mighty Fed is one win away from boosting his haul of majors to a men's record 15.
Mardy Fish tested up-and-down Serb Novak Djokovic in the third round, and prospect Sam Querrey threw a second-round scare into Croatian Marin Cilic, projected as a possible Grand Slam winner down the road.
Critics point out that the same old faces abound at the highest level, which doesn't trouble Fernandez much. She welcomed inquisitors.
"How fortunate are we that we've had both Venus and Serena over a decade of great performances, especially here at Wimbledon?" Fernandez said. "They've dominated. Andy as well. Here's someone who's in the top 10 most of his career. He's on the verge of maybe winning another major, so to me that's all positive. You can't criticize the fact that the champions are still champions."
Oudin is a budding champion. She showed plenty of promise prior to her Wimbledon adventure, ascending to No. 2 in the junior rankings and giving Fernandez a hand by producing a pivotal victory against Argentina in the first round of the Federation Cup in February.
Serena Williams is not the only American headlining the final weekend in Wimbledon.
Although a loser in her Wimbledon opener, Alexa Glatch pushed China's hard-hitting Shuai Peng, the world No. 36, to three sets. Fernandez likes Glatch, too. The 19-year-old from California crushed higher-ranked Czech foes in the Fed Cup, paving the way for an unexpected U.S. appearance in November's final against Italy.
In the juniors, 17-year-old Georgian Jordan Cox tackles Russian Andrey Kuznetsov in Sunday's final. He had to work hard to get there, prevailing 16-14 in the third set against fellow American and doubles partner Devin Britton in the semis. Federer, Stefan Edberg and Pat Cash all claimed the junior title at Wimbledon before landing the big one later.
"I think the fact that some of the juniors have done well at Wimbledon might demonstrate that we have more potential in the 16-, 17- or 18-year-old range," said former Wimbledon semifinalist Todd Martin. "I think also the grass, although it's changed an awful lot, it's still a surface that's good for our country. We generally serve well and generally like to make something happen. There's a lot of value in the first shot or first hit."
Away from Wimbledon, Louisiana native Ryan Harrison, 17, landed his first professional title this month in California. Much is expected from Harrison and 15-year-old brother Christian.
In terms of depth, hanging with the Russians, French and Spanish is the goal. The days of a U.S. monopoly are gone.
"Competition, I think, is even better now," Serena said, referring to 10 years ago. "There are so many great players that are winning every week."
Eleven Russian women sit in the top 50, compared with two (yes, Venus and Serena) for the U.S. Spain, the home of Nadal, houses 14 men's pros in the top 100; France, lauded for its development of juniors and club structure, possesses 12 and the U.S. eight.
All that's in the future. For now, enjoy the success.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.