American tennis appears to be hitting a new level thanks to Sam Querrey and Melanie Oudin.
During the first week of every Grand Slam, the home country’s players are always celebrated at length, despite how little the accomplishments.
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“Every Grand Slam you go to, when you’re in London, How is the LTA doing?” Russian star Maria Sharapova said. “When you’re in America, How is the USTA doing? I mean, you certainly see a great amount of talent coming up. I think it’s great.”
Some players are overhyped, so do not expect Jesse Witten, a 26-year-old Florida native and former University of Kentucky standout, to win his first major, especially considering that he won the first two Slam contests of his career this week.
Veteran Robby Ginepri is playing well, the spunky Vania King has rediscovered some much-needed confidence and the slumping James Blake showed some much-needed mental toughness in downing Olivier Rochus.
The towering John Isner has showed up too and with his huge serve and improving net game could give Andy Roddick trouble in the third round.
However, California’s Querrey, the 22nd seed, is showing top-10 potential, while in the past two months, the 17-year-old Oudin has shown top-20 stuff.
On Thursday, Querrey took a tough 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory over U.S. veteran Kevin Kim, while Oudin shocked fourth seed and Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 — the same Dementieva who had just outrun Serena Williams and Sharapova for the Toronto title.
Querrey has yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, while Oudin’s first foray into the second week came at Wimbledon when she took down Jelena Jankovic.
But neither is backing off the idea that they can be great players. They aren’t just playing along with the U.S. press, who are itching to write about someone other than Venus, Serena or Roddick, and they aren’t just trying to satisfy the ambitions of their parents, friends or coaches. Deep down, they really believe they can be serious contenders.
In fact, when asked to be a cheerleader for the rest of U.S. tennis, Querrey responded with a few slaps on the backs of his compatriots and then propped himself.
“When I see Andy win or James win or Isner win or Ginepri or whoever, I’m happy for those guys, but at the same time I want to be the highest-ranked American. I think all those guys feel the same way too. The more they win, the more it’s going to push the other guys to win.”
The 5-foot-6 Oudin isn’t shy about stating she believes she can be America’s version of seven-time Grand Slam champ Justine Henin.
“She proved that you don’t have to be 6-foot something to be No. 1 in the world,” Oudin said. “But also, the way she plays, the way she moves, the way she uses all different shots and uses the entire court with her drop shot and her angles. Her one-handed backhand is so good. I don’t have a one-hander, but it’s still OK. She figures out a way to take down these players that overpower her with her variety and her movement.”
Oudin, too, is rarely overpowered. She’s a terrific athlete, trim and fit with a quick first step and fine balance.
Though lacking an imposing serve, Oudin can give the ball a ride from both sides and during the past year has added a bit of variety to her game, including a nifty slice and soft drop shot. Unlike some teens, she can crush her forehand three different ways, and also has a laser-like backhand down the line. Plus, she consistently hits a deep, penetrating ball.
“She has a great variety,” Dementieva said. “Today she was definitely in the court trying to hit down the line. She has a very solid game. She moves really well. The footwork is really great. She was really fighting for every point, playing everything back; she’s very patient. She knows what is her strength. She’s just waiting for the moment to attack the ball.”
When Oudin was 12, she attended the U.S. Open. She returned home and said she was going to be a pro and could climb to the top. Her coach Brian De Villiers says she watches more matches than anyone and because of this has developed a better court sense.
“She has a real passion for the game,” De Villiers said.
Currently ranked No. 70, Oudin is long way behind the Williams sisters in accomplishments, but at least this summer, she’s put up impressive enough results that it’s not a wide-eyed idea to think that in the next couple of years, she can be a real title threat.
She upset former No. 1 Jankovic at Wimbledon and on Thursday took down another veteran who has beaten every elite player of note.
“I think Wimbledon helped me because I hadn’t played on Arthur Ashe before,” said Oudin, who at Wimbledon became the youngest player to reach the fourth round since Jennifer Capriati in 1993. “Elena was the highest-ranked player I’ve ever played, so it was a big deal today. I think it means more to me (than the Jankovic win) because this is the U.S. Open.”
Oudin will play 2006 champion Sharapova, who crushed American wild card Christina McHale 6-2, 6-1 in the third round. Oudin will be an underdog, but if she can stick her nose in the points and not get hit off the court early, she’ll have a chance.
“When I play with no fear, that’s when I play my best,” Oudin said.
On the men’s side, Querrey will go up against Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling in the next round and could face No. 8 Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round. He’s in the same quarter as five-time defending champion Roger Federer, who is likely beyond his reach at this point, but Querrey isn’t bluffing when he’s says he’s ready to take a big leap.
He has played every week since Indianapolis began in mid-July and was the U.S. Open Series points leader, reaching the Indy and New Haven finals and winning L.A. His serve is more than significant, he has a world-class forehand and is adding pop to his two- handed backhand. Most importantly, he’s improved his fitness and foot speed and can close on the net quicker. He still has a lot of room for improvement, but he’s working harder than he ever has.
“I feel pretty fast right now,” the 6-foot-5 Querrey said. “There’s not a ball that I’m not getting to that I think I should be getting to. But I feel like my speed is up there. It’s a strength now. I think the return of serve still can get a lot better. My decision-making on the court can still improve a little bit. I think I can sneak into the net a little bit more. I could be a little smarter with how I use my serve and my first-serve percentage.”
It’s still early in the tournament so American fans can’t get ahead of themselves before Labor Day weekend concludes. By Tuesday, it’s possible the tournament will have a more European feel to it.
But Querrey thinks this mini-U.S. surge may not be just a flash in the pan. It’s conceivable that that in 2010, U.S. tennis won’t still just be the Andy, Serena and Venus show.
“There’s a big group of us here,” Querrey said. “Hopefully everyone won’t just do well this week, they’ll do well throughout the year and we can bounce back. I think we can make it like it once was in the ’90s.”