Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Wozniacki to meet Wickmayer in semis
NEW YORK -- Maybe it all was a little too much, a little too soon for Melanie Oudin.
The 17-year-old from Marietta, Ga., kept erasing big deficits and upsetting older, taller, higher-ranked players at the U.S. Open, generating more and more interest in her magical ride.
Her gutsy play, aw-shucks approach and those pink-and-yellow sneakers with "BELIEVE" on the heels carried Oudin all the way to the quarterfinals at the American Grand Slam tournament. That's where her surprising story ended Wednesday night with a 6-2, 6-2 loss to No. 9-seeded Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
"It was a lot," Oudin conceded. "These past two weeks have been really different for me. I've gone from being just a normal, like, tennis player to almost everyone in the United States knowing who I am now."
Then, keeping a brave face, Oudin added: "I don't think that affected my tennis game tonight at all."
Perhaps. Still, facing Wozniacki in the sport's largest arena, playing under the bright lights in the big city, Oudin showed signs of shakiness at the start, dropping 14 of the first 18 points. Even the comeback kid couldn't recover from that.
"This has been a great experience for me. I had a great run here," the 70th-ranked Oudin told the crowd during an on-court interview right after the match, an honor usually reserved for the winner. "I hope to come back next year and do even better."
It'll be hard to top her 2009 U.S. Open.
With impressive court coverage and solid groundstrokes, the 5-foot-6 Oudin knocked off four more established players -- including three-time major champion Maria Sharapova and Beijing Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva -- to become the youngest quarterfinalist at Flushing Meadows since Serena Williams in 1999.
Making the tale even better: Oudin's last three victories each came after she dropped the first set. Plus, there was her wide-eyed, age-appropriate attitude: Everything was "cool" and "awesome," including meeting Roger Federer for the first time and finally getting to shake hands with Sharapova -- only after beating her, of course.
Away from the court, there was heady stuff, too. Extra interviews and photo ops. Greetings from strangers on the street. Autograph-seekers in the hotel lobby.
"She's just had so much other activity going on that mentally she wasn't quite as focused as she should've been," said Oudin's mother, Leslie. "All this comes with experience, and she'll learn how to handle this better."
As Oudin's coach, Brian de Villiers, put it: "Yeah, I think, over time, the distractions might have gotten to her."
An additional distraction did not come to light until Wednesday night, when SI.com reported that Oudin's father, John, filed for divorce from Leslie in July 2008 on grounds of adultery. According to the report, John Oudin alleged in a sworn statement last month that his wife had an affair with de Villiers.
John Oudin was not in his daughter's guest box Wednesday night.
She made 43 unforced errors, 23 more than Wozniacki, who was also playing in her first major quarterfinal. In essence, Oudin ran smack-dab into a version of herself, a counterpunching baseliner who was far steadier on this night.
"She plays incredible defense and makes me hit 1,000 balls," Oudin said. "I could have been more consistent and more patient."
Wozniacki leads the women's tour in match victories this season and, while all of 19, is a relative veteran next to Oudin. Wozniacki is tied for the tour lead with three titles in 2009, including a hard-court tournament in New Haven, Conn., the week before the U.S. Open began, meaning she is on a 10-match winning streak.
"I'm sorry that I won against Melanie today," Wozniacki told the partisan fans, some of whom cheered when she double-faulted. "I know that many of you wanted Melanie to win."
Now the Dane will play her first Grand Slam semifinal against another 19-year-old, Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium. The 50th-ranked Wickmayer -- never before past the second round at a major tournament -- beat Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine 7-5, 6-4.
The other women's semifinal Friday features two far more familiar names: defending champion Williams against 2005 champion Kim Clijsters.
Wozniacki never appeared intimidated by the hostile crowd of 23,881, most of whom waited and waited for a reason to roar for their girl. While Oudin's twin sister, younger sister and coach were wearing black T-shirts with "BELIEVE" in yellow lettering, Wozniacki's personal cheering section of about 15 strong had many more chances to celebrate.
Their applause and yells of encouragement were quite audible in Arthur Ashe Stadium early on as Oudin's error count mounted. It took less than 10 minutes for Wozniacki to seize a 3-0 lead, cleverly constructing points.
After many of her mistakes, Oudin would walk to the edge of the court, her back to the net, and fiddle with her strings. When she did find success with her deep groundstrokes, many of which landed right near the baseline, Oudin would turn toward Mom with a raised fist and yell "Come on!"
Wozniacki only really showed some nerves after already leading 5-1. She missed a backhand, then a forehand, and later double-faulted to get broken for the only time. Still, Wozniacki righted herself right away, breaking back to take the set when Oudin missed a backhand.
To no one's surprise, Oudin made bids to make things interesting in the second set.
At 1-1, Oudin held two break points -- and pushed a forehand return of a 71 mph second serve wide before sailing a forehand long. Then, at 2-all, Oudin again earned two break points -- and sent a backhand wide on the first and then a forehand long on the second.
And that, essentially, was that. Wozniacki won that game and each of the next four.
While so much of the focus has been on Oudin, Wickmayer's story is quite intriguing and inspiring.
When she was 9, her mother died of cancer, and little Yanina set out to find a fresh start, researching tennis academies on the Internet before settling on one in Florida.
Talk about precocious, ambitious and adventurous: Wickmayer had only recently started playing tennis. Neither she nor her father spoke English.
But this is what had to be done.
Her father closed his pool construction company in Belgium, and relatives supported the pair financially while they lived in Florida for 2½ years.
"He just gave everything up for me," Wickmayer said. "He just left. He listened to a girl that was 9 years old and left his life, left his dreams. I'm always going to respect him for that."
Marc Wickmayer was in the Arthur Ashe Stadium stands Wednesday, watching his daughter play the biggest match of her career -- and win it.
"I have no words for what he's done," Wickmayer said. "There is no way of thanking him in any way for what he did, but I hope with my semis here this week, I can show him that I really thank him for everything."
In other action, Serena and Venus Williams won their doubles quarterfinal, beating Zi Yan and Zheng Jie of China 7-5, 6-4.