This year in particular has been a veritable soap opera for followers of pro tennis, from Roger and Rafa’s on-again/off-again rivalry to the tide of Soviet supergirls encroaching on the perennial sister act of Venus and Serena Williams. The grand finale of the Grand Slam season, our very own US Open, held that pattern with as many upwardly mobile teenagers and theatrical showdowns as any episode of Gossip Girl. Appropriately, both singles titles went to unexpected winners (Kim Clijsters and Juan del Potro) who between them managed to blindside all of the aforementioned superstars.
Nothing gets Americans excited quite like an underdog. For whatever reason, our collective David vs. Goliath complex seems to have persisted long since the United States grew up to be a superpower and began its inevitable decline into self-loathing. Of course, we also like to root for the winning team, which is why the Northeast’s loyalties will forever be split between the Red Sox and the Yankees. In tennis, the line between the two is not usually drawn so clearly, but this year the US Open undeniably went to the underdogs.
It must be Flushing Meadows
You know they’ve tried everything when they turn the courts blue. Back in 2005, the tournament’s planners attempted to get more television-friendly by making it easier to spot the yellow ball, but it wasn’t gimmicks that brought in viewers this year. It was good old-fashioned drama. The effort to attract fans is understandable given that the US Open plays gangly stepchild to the other three tennis Majors tournaments (the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon). After all, the action is set in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a neighborhood associated more with cheap Chinese dumplings than white-collar sporting events. You can’t blame the organizers for scrambling a little in their quest for dignity, or, failing that, a kind of loveable exuberance that resonates with the great American tradition of underdoggery.
This year the Open became a corporate-sponsored, summer-long spectacle, the chain of American tennis tournaments leading up to it re-branded as the “Olympus US Open Series” and promoted with a fleet of star-studded TV spots claiming “IT MUST BE LOVE.” Love for what, exactly? Andy Roddick’s pained puppy-dog eyes as his serve fails, once again, to land him a championship title? Camera commercials featuring Maria Sharapova and a talking toy poodle with an over-inflated ego, or hearing commentator John McEnroe relate everything back, sooner or later, to himself? Surely there are other, worthier recipients of our affection.
Of course, despite the cutesy slogans, it quickly became impossible to resist tuning in as players from the top of the tour rankings crumbled against teenage girls and unknown Argentinians. Even ticket holders may have gotten their money’s worth; the unexpected was de rigueur this year, and it made for quite a show.
The underdog ate my racket
In a tournament riddled with upsets, comebacks, and assorted other shenanigans, the nation’s fans had reason for mixed feelings as top-level Americans landed with a resounding flop on their own home turf. Women’s third seed Venus Williams got an unpleasant surprise in the fourth round thanks to Belgian wild card Kim Clijsters, on a roll with her post-partum return to professional tennis. On her way to the title, Clijsters took down the other Williams sister as well in the semis, in a bizarre match that ended with Serena’s disqualification for a tantrum over a foot-fault penalty. Meanwhile, on the slightly less turbulent male half of the bracket, our last best hope Andy Roddick looked deep into the eyes of a baby-faced doppelganger, fellow American John Isner, and as is usually the case these days, failed to find his mojo. But, though there were upsets aplenty to be had, it’s fair to say that no one came out of them smelling quite so sweet as the latest hometown flash in the pan: Melanie Oudin.
First order of business for any Open viewer or those who wanted to join their conversations was having an opinion about the perky-as-all-get-out Oudin. The unseeded and unknown 17-year-old waded straight from the swamps of Georgia into the hearts of New Yorkers with an impressive string of wins over three players so much higher on the WTA tour rankings that her name had barely appeared in print with theirs’ before. Like three dominoes with Russian surnames and ferocious biceps, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, and Nadia Petrova fell one after another to the seemingly unstoppable Oudin on her rampage to the quarterfinals. After losing to Oudin in a gritty blur of double faults, unforced errors, and blonde ponytails, Sharapova in particular must be devastated to forfeit her crown as America’s Tennis Sweetheart to the newcomer. Oudin’s upbeat attitude and breathlessly enunciated, quasi-Midwestern vowels made her a shoo-in for the title.
The teenager’s wins came as a breath of fresh air in American women’s tennis after years of Williams dominance. It’s a mark of how ready fans are for an underdog that even Alec Baldwin, not known for supportive behavior when it comes to adolescent girls, sat in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium and pumped his fist for Oudin like a proud daddy. At a press conference following her fourth-round win over Nadia Petrova, a smitten reporter asked Oudin how she managed to be so “refreshingly normal.” Oudin seemed a little taken aback by the question, but prattled off a suitably normal response: “Just because all of this is happening, it’s not like I’m gonna change the person [I am], I just love to play tennis and I’m doing well and I’m winning, and that’s—that’s the only thing that’s changing.” Of course, she’s wrong; fame changes you whether you want it to or not, and Oudin will never have quite the same hold over the public’s hearts that she does right at this moment, the perfect pinnacle of her time as an underdog.
You can’t hurry love
In the end, it was a relief to see the wunderkind reined in before her enthusiasm completely outstripped her skill level. It wasn’t a Russian power-hitter who tackled Oudin in the quarterfinals, but an opponent cut from similar cloth: Danish 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki, flawlessly manicured in a ruffled dusty-pink dress and silver jewelry. Wozniacki made it look as if Oudin, fretting from foot to foot in her visor and Technicolor sneakers, was a sweaty jogger trying to crash the senior prom. Oudin’s nerves caught up with her and she made 43 unforced errors, more than twice as many as Wozniacki. Despite her own relative inexperience, the Dane met the girl behind the Cinderella story with solid defense, well-controlled shots at the net, and a kind of composed ruthlessness that reminded everyone of who Oudin actually is: a kid playing tennis with grownups.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Oudin that makes one hesitate to hold her up as the next big thing in American women’s tennis. Maybe her success as an unassuming everygirl, steamrolling competitors at an international tournament before she can legally vote, hits uncomfortably close to home for those of us who have no such accomplishments on our résumés. But besides that, her babbling ingénue act makes her miracle run smells more like a fluke than an omen of things to come; she doesn’t have the gravity of other young players who seem ready for the attention they’ve worked to earn.
The truth is that it’s not satisfying to root for someone whose main selling point is entirely circumstantial. Even if Oudin can maintain her momentum, in a year or two her forehands won’t look fresh anymore. The Williams sisters have built their empire on hitting the ball harder and faster than anyone else, but Oudin won’t be able to beat them at that game; she’ll need to zero in on something else that gives her an edge. So far she hasn’t shown the kind of intelligence and nuance behind her shots that makes it so exciting to watch a gifted player like Roger Federer, who relies on finesse and strategy rather than pure scrappiness to win matches (or, this year, lose them). While Oudin’s run at the US Open no doubt got some hearts pounding, it wasn’t great tennis, just great television. The bottom line is that everyone’s an underdog at some point. It’s what you do once you’re on top that makes the difference.
RACHEL SANDERS B’10 drinks Hatorade during set breaks.