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BILL DWYRE

Melanie Oudin is making it big on very big tennis stage

The 17-year-old from Georgia gets her fourth victory in a row over a Russian to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. And the term 'America's Sweetheart' is bandied about.

September 08, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM NEW YORK — She is a little bug they cannot crush.

She is Melanie Oudin, age 17, a four-match sensation at the biggest tennis carnival in the world, the U.S. Open.

She left home in Marietta, Ga., to come to New York City and see whether she could make it there. Little did she know, thanks to television and the Internet, she would make it everywhere.

She is 5 feet 6 and seems to have a specialty. She beats Russians, usually big Russians. She is in the quarterfinals because she did it again Monday, sending away 5-11 Nadia Petrova, the 13th-seeded player, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

When she steps out there, it never seems like a fair fight. She took out her first Russian, 5-9 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, in straights sets, then lost first sets to 5-11 Elena Dementieva and 6-2 Maria Sharapova before coming back to win.

Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's not a fair fight because Oudin is in it. They are beanstalks and she is Jack.

Monday's victim, Petrova, once No. 3 in the world and playing in her 37th Grand Slam tournament, won the prize of the day for silly spin with her attempt to explain how this little gnat keeps avoiding being swatted.

"The way she's built, it's actually an advantage," Petrova said. "It's much easier for her to move around the court than for someone as tall as me or Maria or Elena."

Whatever it is, Oudin has become the Russian Killer of the 2009 U.S. Open. Her name is mud in Moscow.

Another Russian was almost next up. but Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki eliminated former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova later Monday. That's probably good, because Petrova had thrown Kuznetsova under the bus at her news conference.

"Now she gets hopefully a short and a little chubby Russian," Petrova said of the 5-8 Kuznetsova. "See how she's going to handle that."

It will be Wozniacki now, and Oudin will attempt to handle her as she has handled the rest, while making a tennis-career breakthrough on the most public of stages. She will battle to the end.

"I'm just going to keep playing my same game, keep fighting," she said.

She lost the first set to Petrova, a player more mechanical than athletic, whose father was a top hammer thrower and mother an Olympic sprinter, by succumbing to big serves and heavy ground strokes.

But once she broke serve to get to 3-1 of the second, she got herself and the wildly enthusiastic 23,000-plus crowd fired up for yet another Melanie Miracle. And even when she slipped back to 3-3, they stayed with her as she saved two break points with Petrova serving at 4-3, 40-15.

She got it into the tiebreaker, won that going away at 7-2, and kept right on going, as Petrova unraveled bit by bit in the deciding set. That was especially evident in Petrova's 2-2 service game, which she ended with a dreadful-looking double fault that flew 10 feet long.

Oudin broke her again for 5-2, and again, in Petrova's 3-5 service game, when she hit a forehand winner on her third match point.

By then, the crowd that had remained stoked after the second-set tiebreaker had moved past joy to adoration.

As her match point whistled past the lumbering Petrova, Oudin seemed to stumble a step forward in near shock. Then she dropped her racket, made her way to the net, shook hands and soaked it all in. Some players raise their arms to the crowd. Oudin, as befits her fighting style, shook a clenched fist to all sides of the stadium.

Television, milking a ratings bonanza when it sees one, fanned the flames with one of those on-court interviews that are more pep rallies than real questions.

Mary Jo Fernandez crowned Oudin "America's Sweetheart" and the cameras swung to Oudin's box and Oudin's twin sister, Katherine, sobbing in joy.

Soon, somebody in charge saw her standing there and the sound system blared some Beatles: "She was just 17, if you know what I mean. . . . "

Apparently, a jet flyover could not be arranged in time.

The rest of the week will demonstrate whether Oudin is the next Tracy Austin or the next one-week wonder.

She was critiqued by No. 5 Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon this year as a nice player with no weapons. That, of course, was after Oudin beat Jankovic and it did not, of course, take into consideration the success of players such as Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Chang, to name two, who won major tournaments and millions of dollars despite having only the same weapon as Oudin -- a huge competitive drive.

Petrova made 59 unforced errors and had six double faults. Oudin hit lines as if there were magnets buried in them. Of her 19 winners, it seemed as if most of them hit the back part of the back part of the baseline.

Still, there is no denying the size of her heart and the fire in her belly. Or the personal satisfaction she has earned.

"I know that I can compete with the best in the world now," she said, "and I will know that forever."

She was asked whether she could be the champion. Her answer was telling.

"Maybe someday, hopefully," she said.

At 17, she has a sound handle on reality.

In the other half of the draw, were she to get that far, are Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, to name two.

In their long and illustrious careers, each has been known to crush a bug or two.

--

bll.dwyre@latimes.com.

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