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9:01PM

CBSSports.com: American men nowhere to be found deep in 2009 U.S. Open

By Art Spander
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com


NEW YORK -- Maybe John McEnroe can save the U.S. Open. Sure, he's 50 years old. But he still has a forehand. And a name. And he's American, a triple that at this point in the last Grand Slam tennis event of the year makes him the one and only man in all three categories.

John's a broadcaster now, as you're aware. He no longer shouts at chair umpires. He comments into a microphone, telling the way it is and, especially when somebody misplays a shot, the way it should be.

In a way, this is his tournament. He grew up in Queens, not far from the tennis center, and after spending a year irritating people at Stanford, returned. He won the Open three times. He was emotional, occasionally irrational and supremely talented.

If he's not the most famous male on the grounds -- let's give the honor to Roger Federer -- Mac the Mouth sure is well known and respected. And cooperative. He'll do anything to help his sport.

Novak Djokovic, the No. 4 men's seed, waved Mac out of the booth Monday evening after Djokovic blitzed Radek Stepanek in straight sets. The night was young. Midnight still was 13 minutes away. Let's get it on.

First, McEnroe had to get it off, meaning his coat and tie. Then he slipped into his tennis shoes and rallied briefly. The fans loved it, of course.

They haven't loved a great deal else the way the men's draw has gone, from a parochial view. Six Americans made it to the third round, and one of them, James Blake, overly optimistic, contended, "All these guys are hungry. We're all getting better, feeding off each other."

But of those six, only one, John Isner, went to the fourth round. And when he was eliminated, for the first time in the 129 years of the event, whether the U.S. National Championships or starting in 1968 the U.S. Open, no American male reached the quarterfinals.

McEnroe's younger brother Patrick, who also played for Stanford, who also announces and who happens to be the U.S. Davis Cup captain, conceded, "The reality is the reality. The world has caught up at the same time I believe we can do a better job."

Great Britain didn't do a very good job, either. Andy Murray, the Scot, is No. 2 in the world and was a finalist here last year. But Tuesday he was ripped by a 20-year-old Croatian, Marin Cilic, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

Cilic's next opponent is five days older and 10 seeds higher, No. 6 Juan Martin Del Potro, who Tuesday was a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 winner over Juan Carlos Ferrero. Del Potro is American -- South American, having grown up in the cattle town of Tandil, Argentina.

He's the sort of kid -- Del Potro will be 21 on Sept. 23 -- the United States only wished it had. He beat Andy Roddick in a final in August at Washington, D.C., and seven days later lost to Murray in the final at Montreal.

"I have the confidence," Del Potro said. "I beat many good players in Washington and Montreal, and now I beat good players on this surface." Meaning cement, very unlike the clay courts upon which he learned the game in Argentina.

"I have everything to do a good tournament," said Del Potro, not as adept in English as other players on Tour. "But I would like to be in the semis or my first final.

"It's a big difference past the quarters to the semis. I was so close in French Open to get to the final."

Close? Never mind close. If John McEnroe were 30 years younger, the U.S. would be close to having a man who could play tennis like people from the rest of the world.

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http://www.cbssports.com/tennis/story/12176032
© 2009 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.
8:57PM

CBSSports.com: Believe it: Oudin dispatches another Russian to extend surprising run

By Art Spander
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com


NEW YORK --- This is Hollywood stuff. A young woman with "Believe" on her sneakers and fearlessness in her constitution shows up at the biggest tennis tournament in America and proves irresistible and at this point unbeatable.

Melanie Oudin is a human backboard, a dyed-blonde Energizer Bunny.

She's a teen queen who acts as if she doesn't take herself seriously but talks as if she someday is going to take over her whole sport, which is not beyond the realm of possibility.

What she lacks on serve -- she's only 5-6 -- she makes up in nerve, never giving up in a match when falling behind, as she invariably seems to do, or on a point, even on balls seemingly hit beyond her limited reach.

Oudin knocked out yet another Russian on Monday in this U.S. Open, the fourth in four matches, outhustling, outracing and eventually outplaying befuddled Nadia Petrova 1-6, 7-6, 6-3 and at age 17 becoming the youngest quarterfinalist since Serena Williams in 1999.

It was great theater at Arthur Ashe Court for a sellout crowd of 24,000, which provincially, and not undeservedly, proved loudly biased for Oudin.

At match point, fans stood and hollered the way they do in the top of the ninth when Yankees need only one more out and Mariano Rivera needs only one more strike.

What Oudin, the kid from Marietta, Ga., in the Atlanta suburbs, needs is nothing. She's got it all -- enthusiasm, dyed blonde hair and just enough naivete to endear her to anyone -- except her opponents.

Oudin lost the first set to No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva in the second round, lost the first set to former champion Maria Sharapova in the third round and then lost the first set to Petrova, the No. 13 seed.

"I actually don't mean to lose the first set," she told a group of media, drawing a large laugh. But such innocence is perfectly acceptable, especially with U.S tennis in great need for some heroines beyond Serena and Venus Williams.

Asked to describe what she has done, Oudin, who came to the tournament No. 70 in the rankings, said, "It's kind of hard. Like today there are no tears because I believed I could do it. And it's now like I belong here."

She belongs, all right. You don't drop the first set in 31 minutes, fall behind 4-3 in the second and then flail and rip your way to a victory if you don't belong.

"It was tough," Oudin said. "She was all over me. But I kept fighting."

That's a virtue long prized, the never-say-die spirit, the against-all-odds victory. You keep thinking Oudin has no chance against those taller, harder-serving women. It's they who have no chance, and they continue to offer repetitive explanations that make it appear Oudin is doing it with smoke, mirrors and crowd noise.

"She's done very well," Petrova conceded. "I mean, she won quite a few very good matches, and it's a lot of pressure and a big stadium. The first time you feel so excited and everything is so new and kind of like you have absolutely nothing to lose and you go and do it."

She's done it. Petrova implied she allowed Oudin to do it.

"I have a feeling I didn't finish the job," Petrova said. "At 4-3, having 40-15 in the game, I went for my shot down the line. That didn't go in. Then the next point was a long rally, and she came up with an unbelievable winner down the line.

"Winning that game kind of gave her a second breath. She realized, 'OK, I'm back in the game.' And probably after winning previous matches, she thought, 'I can do it again.'"

She always thinks that way.

"She gets pretty much in her own zone," said her father, John Oudin. "Nothing breaks her focus. I don't know where she gets it from."

Wherever, mental toughness is perhaps an athlete's most important asset. Hang in there, coaches tell players. Don't quit. It's obvious Oudin never quits.

"Mentally, I'm staying in there with them the whole time and not giving up at all," Oudin said. "So they're going to have to beat me, because I'm not going anywhere."

Literally, she did go someplace, to Times Square on her day off, Sunday, for a photo shoot. It turned into a near free-for-all, photogs and fans battling each other for a picture or an autograph.

"Melanie is not used to that," John Oudin said. "She said to me, 'This is going to take some getting used to.' She's not used to being recognized all over."

Nor is she used to becoming a quarterfinalist in a Grand Slam, but she likes the feeling.

"This is my dream forever," Melanie said. "I've worked so hard for this, and it's finally happening. It's amazing."

It's Hollywood. Except it's real. As Oudin has on the sides of her shoes, "Believe."

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http://www.cbssports.com/tennis/story/12171877
© 2009 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.
8:54AM

RealClearSports.com: Changes at the Top of US Tennis

By Art Spander
For RealClearSports.com



NEW YORK -- It's a sport built on names as much as talent. Tennis is different, except for golf. Most loyalties are with uniforms, no matter who's wearing them. If you're a Yankees fan, you're a Yankees fan whether the guy at short is Phil Rizzuto or Derek Jeter, and that lasts forever.

Tennis players come and go all too quickly. The window closes before you know it. What happened to Andre Agassi? To Pete Sampras? To Jennifer Capriati? To Martina Navratilova?

Careers are short. Players start young and retire young. You lose a step. Or some racquet speed. And coming up quickly from behind is some 19-year-old with great skills who virtually no one's ever heard of, especially if she or he comes from Serbia or Slovania.

To make tennis go in America particularly -- and that's where the television money comes from, where the yearly U.S. Open now underway draws 700,000 people during the two weeks -- tennis needs Americans near the top or at the top, Americans who are known throughout America, if not the world.

Andy Roddick and Venus Williams fit well into that category. They and Venus' younger sister, Serena, were about the only U.S. players who could make a showing in a Grand Slam event, about the only U.S. players who were celebrities as well as athletes.

But in a space of 24 hours, both were chased from the 2009 U.S. Open, Roddick on Saturday night by the man who might someday replace him, John Isner, and Venus on Sunday afternoon by a 26-year-old Belgian who had quit the game for two years to marry and have a baby, Kim Clijsters.

Roddick will be back. You can't be sure of Venus. She is 29, and despite the best intentions, most tennis stars start to slip around 30, especially because their bodies begin to fail.

Venus is having left knee trouble, wearing heavy taping. One of her great assets, the ability to fly around the court, has been restricted.

Serena still is capable. She again is the favorite to repeat last year's victory. Crushed her fourth-round opponent, Daniela Hantuchova, on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Straight sets, a little more than an hour. The lady they call the Drama Queen, for all the incidents, was undramatic in a match that lacked any suspense.

So Serena is still here and one hopes will stay. But who's next, who to step in for Venus and eventually, if not now, Roddick?

Maybe Melanie Oudin, the Munchkin from the suburbs of Atlanta, who beat Elena Dementieva and then the glamour lady and former champ, Maria Sharapova.

Maybe John Isner. He had 39 service aces against Roddick, who himself holds the record for all-time fastest serve, 156 mph. Pow, smash, whap.

By all rights, Isner should have been the next Tyler Hansbrough. He's 6-foot-9 and from North Carolina. But he worked on his drop shot, not his jump shot. Then, unlike most tennis stars these days, he went to college, the University of Georgia, where he not only helped win an NCAA team title, he graduated. How about that, Dawg?

And how about the 5-foot-6 Oudin, also from Georgia? That's not a state people think about when it comes to a new Roger Federer or Chris Evert. But that's our problem, not Georgia's.

Oudin was to face yet another Russian, her third in a row, Nadia Petrova, in Monday's fourth round. Melanie doesn't figure to keep winning.

She's too young (17). Too inexperienced. But if she does keep winning, she has a chance to become the star America needs, after Serena and, depending on what happens, replacing Venus. If indeed Venus can be replaced.

An interesting phenomenon Sunday at Ashe Stadium. The crowd was supporting Clijsters more than it was supporting Venus Williams. Was that because Clijsters had been away and the fans were welcoming her return? Or because the Williams sisters, even as heroines, had stayed too long at the fair?

Isner said he had to play the match of his life to beat Roddick, who until the defeat had been playing the best of all the men. But if Isner is to make it to the top, as a player, as a personality, he has to have a lot of repeat performances, especially in Grand Slams. He has to rouse the curiosity of sports fans who don't know a volley from a rally.

Is he prepared and capable? How about Melanie Oudin? So often kids make an impression, and about the time the headlines arrive, they flame and burn out.

Oudin acts humble enough, something that will endear her to the masses, but how long does that last? And how long does she last?

You'd think in a country of 300 million, more than one or two could become a tennis star.

Serena, Venus and Andy were able to do it. Is there anybody else?

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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http://www1.realclearsports.com/articles/2009/09/07/changes_at_the_top_of_us_tennis_96474.html
© RealClearSports 2009
9:37PM

CBSSports.com: Venus' age starting to show with latest U.S. Open loss

By Art Spander
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com 
 
NEW YORK -- This time it wasn't Venus rising. This time it was Venus Williams, left knee strapped, forehand erratic, serve uncontrolled, losing and making us wonder whether this indeed might be the beginning of the end.

Kim Clijsters, out of tennis for more than two years, knocked Venus, the No. 3 seed, from the 2009 U.S. Open in a fourth-round match Sunday as bizarre as it was perplexing, Clijsters winning 6-0, 0-6, 6-4.

Clijsters, who won the Open in 2005, incurred an injury that kept her from defending in 2006 and then stepped away in 2007, answered the question about whether she still has game.

Venus, on the other hand, left us with more questions. She is 29, the knee is certainly a factor and she is without a victory in a Grand Slam event this year, although she did lose in the Wimbledon final to sister Serena.

It isn't merely the first set that can be used as evidence -- she lost 6-0, 6-4 to Agnes Szavay in the third round of the French this year. It is the cumulative work of the past few months.

Venus has reached that age when, with rare exception, tennis players start to decline. And while it would be foolish to underestimate Williams anytime she's across the net with a racquet, knee problems invariably get worse, not better.

Knee problems or not, Venus joined her sister for a winning doubles match after her singles loss even though their father, Richard, had been saying Venus should take it easy and play only singles.

As usual after a defeat, Venus was tight-lipped, offering platitudes but no explanation as to what happened, especially in the first set when, as they say in tennis, she got bageled.

"I think she played really well," Venus said of Clijsters, "and hit a lot of great shots. I wish her the best of luck. I would have liked to play better to win the match. I would have liked to have capitalized on some more shots."

Asked if she was surprised how well Clijsters, in only her third tournament back, played, Venus said, "Yeah, she played well. She always played well through her career. I'm sure she'll continue to do that."

What will Venus, winner of seven Grand Slam tournaments, do? In the past, she has talked about competing into her 30s, playing in the 2012 Olympics, but who knows?

Venus almost didn't get out of the first round of this Open, needing three sets to beat 47th-ranked Vera Dushevina. "It's going to be a lot of prayer and everything else I can throw into it," Venus said of her knee after that struggle. "But I'm tough."

No one doubts that, but she also is not as mobile as she once was, not able to use her superior athletic ability, which often has compensated for a lack of tennis fundamentals.

With the departure of Venus, the No. 1 (Dinara Safina), 3 (Venus Williams), 4 (Elena Dementieva) and 5 (Jelena Jankovic) seeds have been eliminated from this Open before the quarterfinals. And 26-year-old Clijsters, who quit to marry and have a child, is still in the draw.

"You're not really worried about results," said Clijsters, who is accompanied by her husband Brian Lynch, a basketball player from the U.S., and their daughter, Jared. "You're just trying to fight through the match."

She fought. Venus fought. Then she broke Williams in the third game of the third set, and that was the difference.

The first two sets? "Very weird," Clijsters said. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. I can't speak for [Venus]. On my side, I felt like we never were really playing our best tennis at the same time until the third set.

"In the first set, I really felt like I was dominating a lot of points. I was serving well. I think that's where I kept her under pressure, kept her from what she's good at, stepping into the court, playing aggressive tennis. She also made a lot of mistakes, missed a lot of first serves. ... Then I felt like in the second set, she was kind of doing that to me for a little bit."

Clijsters' comeback began early this year when she accepted a challenge to play an exhibition at Wimbledon with Tim Henman against Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi. She had too much pride to go out and embarrass herself, so she started training as in the old days -- meaning before 2007.

"I've been working hard the last seven, eight months and enjoying it," Clijsters said. "It's something that's really important to me, as long as I can focus on tennis and have fun on the outside as well."

Tears rolled down her cheeks after the win over Venus, but surely they were joyful tears.

Venus smiled during the post-match handshake but understandably was grim in leaving the court, where a boisterous sellout crowd seemed to be supporting Clijsters as much as Venus.

A few hours earlier, Serena, the defending champion, was an easy winner. Serena looks as if she'll be in the finals again this year. But will Venus ever get back?

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http://www.cbssports.com/tennis/story/12167294
© 2009 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.
9:29PM

CBSSports.com: Oudin, Isner turn in memorable day, bright future for American tennis

By Art Spander
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com


NEW YORK -- It was the day that wouldn't end. It was an afternoon that became evening and offered American tennis a future as bright as the moon that eventually rose over Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Youth will be served -- and volleyed and backhanded.

First, Melanie Oudin, the wunderkind, and then John Isner tossed caution to what little wind there was on this historic day at Flushing Meadows and tossed the schedule of the U.S. Open upside down and inside out.

The 17-year-old Oudin, who's becoming adept at this sort of thing, upset Maria Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, in 2 hours, 58 minutes on Saturday.

Then the 24-year-old Isner upset No. 5 seed Andy Roddick 7-6 (3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5) in 3 hours, 51 minutes.

They came back-to-back, the matches, nearly seven hours of tension, and for a sellout crowd of more than 24,000, there was such excitement that the spectators didn't want to leave.

Except two more matches, the evening program, were still to be played. And the fans who held tickets for those matches, which wouldn't begin until 10 p.m., not the announced 7 p.m., were waiting to get their seats. They had been watching the big TV screen in the plaza for more than three hours.

What they saw was the 6-foot-9 Isner smashing 39 aces and keep Roddick, who has the record for the fastest serve ever, 156 mph, off balance and out of sorts.

This after Oudin, who for comparison's sake is more than a foot shorter than Isner -- she's listed at 5-foot-6 -- kept coming at Sharapova with the aggression of a UFC fighter.

Two days earlier, Oudin had knocked off the No. 4 seed, Elena Dementieva, a Russian. Then she discombobulated Sharapova, the 2007 champ, the No. 29 seed, a Russian. Maria had 21 double faults. Next, in the fourth round Oudin will play Nadia Petrova, a Russian.

It sounds like Napoleon's campaign against the Czars in the 19th Century.

"I had every emotion possible," said Oudin. "I mean, I was crying. I was so happy and excited. I'm pretty sure I screamed after that last shot."

Which was a cross-court winner.

Isner's last shot was, of course, a monster serve in the fifth-set tiebreaker. Roddick hit it out.

"I had to play the match of my life to beat him," said Isner, referring to Roddick, who won this tournament in 2003 and two months ago took Roger Federer to a fifth set at Wimbledon, where there are no fifth-set tiebreakers, and lost 16-14.

"On this stage, this setting, I proved I can play with anybody."

We're only maybe eight miles from Broadway, 42nd Street, the Great White Way. You know the cliche, "You're going out there a kid, but you're coming back a star." Oudin and Isner have filled that role.

She's from Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, home-schooled so she could become the champion Melanie seems destined to be. He's from North Carolina but was a star at the University of Georgia. Must be something in the water down there.

Tobacco Road? How about Topspin Highway?

"There's a lot out of your hands, the way he plays," Roddick said of Isner, whom he had beaten twice in two previous matches, including a few weeks ago in the semifinal of the Washington, D.C., tournament.

"You can't teach 6-9," Roddick said of the angle and power of Isner's serve. "Sometimes you try to fight it off. But it's not like the majority of matches we play, where if you play well you win. He doesn't allow you to get into the match."

Isner contracted mononucleosis in the late spring and couldn't enter either the French Open or Wimbledon.

"I remember how ticked off I was at home," said Isner, "but it may have been a blessing in disguise. I took a month off, then started working hard and smart."

Oudin, who has "BELIEVE" embossed on the ankle of her multicolored tennis shoes, also credits her practice routines for success.

If you recall, after Melanie stunned Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon, Jankovic contended Oudin didn't have "the weapons," primarily a serve. What would anyone expect from a Munchkin? But she has staying power and courage.

"I think my biggest weapon can be mental toughness," said Oudin. "I developed it. I wasn't born with it."

Someone wondered if she'd been labeled a giant killer, although to her every opponent is rather enormous. "Yeah," she said, "a couple of people have called me that."

What you could have called Saturday's play in the Open was confused. The afternoon matches went so long and so deep into the evening that the women's competition between top seed Dinara Safina and Petra Kvitova was shifted from Ashe Court to Armstrong Court so the James Blake-Tommy Robredo match wouldn't be starting around midnight.

That's one of the unpredictable parts of tennis. You never know how long a match might run. The ones involving Oudin and Isner seemed to run forever, but they didn't mind. Neither did the fans on this wonderful long day's journey into night.

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http://www.cbssports.com/tennis/story/12162826
© 2009 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.