Injuries sideline a few, but several in mix

The WTA Tour’s string of bad luck with their elite players continued, as promising youngster Victoria Azarenka suffered a mild concussion after falling in the gym before she was forced to retire six games into her match against Gisela Dulko in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday.

Watching the 10th-seeded Belarussian topple over and lay on the hot concrete was a disturbing sight, and while Azarenka was being rushed to the hospital, it appeared that it was possible she had retired because of heat exhaustion on a miserably hot and humid day in NYC when temperatures on court reached 107 degrees.

But later — after it was discovered that the same woman who had retired because of food poisoning when she had Serena Williams on the ropes at the 2009 Aussie Open had actually just had a big mishap in the gym — it became clear that the WTA is just snakebitten. With No. 1-ranked Serena Williams sitting out the U.S. Open after cutting both her feet on glass, two-time U.S. Open champion Justine Henin out for the rest of the year with an elbow injury, and now Stanford champion Azarenka, who looked like a top-shelf contender coming into the tournament, gone the way of a bump in the fitness room.

There are still a number of excellent name players left in the draw, as well as some hungry lesser-known ones, but it’s a little early to be losing a player who had the goods to win a major to a freak injury. The rest of the competitors have to soldier and try and navigate the difficult circumstances.

Former finalist Elena Dementieva, the 12th seed, wanted to avoid the negative talk of the oppressive weather at all costs. Before she went on court against and bested Sybille Bammer 6-3, 6-4, she stood in the players lounge listening to the chatter about Azarenka and hearing one player or another relate stories of competing in a low-lying inferno. After a while she had heard enough.

"Everyone is coming back from their matches and saying to you, ‘It’s unbelievable. You are going to die out there,’" Dementieva said. "I’m like, ‘I’m playing next. I don’t want to hear those conversations.’ I was trying to hide somewhere and went to a quiet exercise room and locked myself in there because I was trying not to think about the heat. It’s just one or two days; you have to survive it."

Dementieva, who until last week was really struggling to find her game after coming off a severe calf injury that took her out of Wimbledon, isn’t really sure she is a true contender. Even though she’s reached the semis of all four majors and is entering the twilight of her career at the age of 28 and in her 11th full year on tour, time is running out on her chances to win that elusive Grand Slam title. Just before the U.S. Open in New Haven, she finally looked a little like the tireless, inside-the-baseline flamethrower that has been a top-five player, taking two three-hour plus victories over Kateryna Bondarenko and Marion Bartoli, and then losing a three-hour, three-set tiebreaker to eventual titlist Caroline Wozniacki.

In her usual form, especially with Serena, Henin and Azarenka out, there would be little question that she’s a top-five pick. But Dementieva feels like she’s only been playing well for a little over a week, so, unlike in other years when she came in a great rhythm and was able to pin foes to the wall with relentless ground strokes, she’s not spilling over with confidence.

In fact, when asked whether she was even in the top-10 list of favorites, she shook her head and smiled.

"Is there a category like 30-plus?" she asked with a laugh.

Then she added in a more serious manner, "I have to improve if I can get to the second week. I’m not only trying to win matches, but improve my game and do something better or I’m not going to get to the second week. It was important to win a tournament before the U.S. Open, and the players who were able to do that like Kim Clijsters and Wozniacki, it feels they are set and ready to go. But me? I don’t feel like I’m 100 percent ready."

But considering what happened to Azarenka, and the fact that Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone came out of near nowhere to win the French Open. It’s conceivable that a player like Dementieva could find herself in a better frame of mind after Labor Day Weekend, if in fact the site survives the possible presence of Hurricane Earl.

"In two weeks, anything can happen," said Dementieva, who will play Daniela Hantuchova in the next round." You have to survive these hot days, and maybe the rain and wind will come and anything can happen. You have to be strong and work through the challenges and the expectations."

Some players did just that on Wednesday, but others failed the test. Last year’s teen sensation, Melanie Oudin, couldn’t back up the new word printed on her shoes — Courage — when she played nervously and erratically in a 6-2, 7-5 loss to No. 29 Alona Bondarenko. After a miserable five-month stretch, Oudin sounded like she was quite pleased to get out of town. "At least now coming into next year no one will really expect that much from me, so I guess that’s good," she said.

The bottom half of the draw has now filled out its third round matchups, and five of the 32 entrants aren’t seeded, including former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who appears to be reviving for real this time after she stung No. 21 Zheng Jie 6-3, 6-0. Ivanovic is not only a name player, but also a marquee personality, with an attractive game and a constantly evolving story. She may be ranked No. 40, but is more well-known than Azarenka, and if she can knock out French veteran Virginie Razzano and skip into a fourth-round match against defending champion Clijsters, then maybe the "who’s missing" conversations will be replaced with those still here.

"I feel like I’m playing like a top-10 player, and I have confidence that I can beat these players," Ivanovic said. "That’s huge for me."