Credit the boisterous pro-American crowd, the hard courts or just the experience gained throughout the long tennis season, but one thing is certain: players from the United States have enjoyed a wave of success at the U.S. Open this year.
While just six Americans (four men and two women) made it to the third round in New York in 2008, this year six American men and four women advanced that far in the tournament. And while the veteran U.S. players — Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick and James Blake — were all part of that group, this year’s Open also proved to be a great showcase for less established American talent.
Perhaps the biggest star to emerge is 17-year-old Melanie Oudin. Although she first burst onto the scene by upsetting Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon this summer, it is in front of the New York fans that the Georgia teen has blossomed with stunning wins over No. 4 Elena Dementieva and No. 29 Maria Sharapova.
In both of those matches, there were many times where Oudin could have folded beneath the pressure of the situation and the talent of her opponent. Against Sharapova in the third round, Oudin couldn't convert on a number of decisive points in the second set. She never showed any negativity, however. Aided by some less than stellar serving by Sharapova, Oudin collected herself and ultimately evened the match at one set each.
Many other players, including those with much more experience than Oudin, wouldn't have been able to sustain that mental toughness. Even players currently in the top 10 often struggle with nerves and pressure.
The fact that Oudin is so successful in that regard bodes well for her continued success. Her on-court skills can continue to be refined, but mental tenacity is something that most champions have innately.
What Oudin lacks in size (she’s generously listed as 5-foot-6), she makes up for in speed and perseverance. While a powerful serve and good forehand are generally regarded as some of the most potent weapons a player can possess, Oudin shows it is possible to excel by running down virtually every return and forcing her opponent to hit more shots. She doesn't produce as much firepower as other women on Tour, but the way she handled some of the blasts from Sharapova shows that she can neutralize the power game.
Oudin is now the third-ranked American on the WTA Tour behind Serena and Venus Williams and gives the United States another player who really can do some damage in big tournaments. Just four to six weeks ago she was focused on trying to get into the U.S. Open and worrying about whether she might need tournament wildcard entries. Now look how far she’s come. As she gains experience, Oudin should become an even stronger competitor.
The breakout performance in the men's draw has been turned in by 24-year-old John Isner, who turned pro in 2007. With a big serve, consistent groundstrokes and high-risk, high-reward strategy, Isner is quickly advancing through the ranks. Showing no residual effects from the case of mononucleosis that forced him to miss both the French Open and Wimbledon this year, Isner has momentum from strong summer results and is peaking at the U.S. Open.
While his 38 aces and 90 total winners in a five-set victory over No. 5 Roddick were impressive, what stood out even more was his ability to beat the top-ranked American in a fifth-set tiebreak. Isner took the game out of Roddick's hands, raised the level of his play and convincingly earned a spot in the fourth round.
As Isner continues to improve his fitness and movement on the court, there's no doubt that he can continue to advance in the rankings and consistently find himself deep in tournaments. You can’t teach height, and Isner’s 6-foot-9 frame makes him a tall order to defeat.
He and U.S. Open doubles partner Sam Querrey are the rising men’s stars behind Roddick. After admiring Andy and aspiring to his level of success, both John and Sam are at the point in their careers where they need to make that a reality. Isner and Querrey have shown they have the talent to be top-10 players and have had big wins over top Tour players. Now they need to string together those wins and follow Roddick’s example by getting more physically fit.
Even though 26-year-old Jesse Witten bowed out in the third round, the U.S. Open did remarkable things for his flagging tennis prospects. Dropped by his only sponsor earlier in the year and bouncing around small challenger events, Witten was contemplating retirement. One week at the U.S. Open recharged his career.
He soundly defeated No. 29 Igor Andreev in the first round and nearly knocked off No. 4 Novak Djokovic before falling in four tightly-contested sets in the third round. Those performances should demonstrate that he has a future in professional tennis and motivate him to get into the best shape of his life. Hopefully, this will give him the confidence and the spark to continue on.
The hard part is that he's still not ranked and will head off to another small tournament next weekend. Witten will need to find the same motivation in front of the one hundred or two hundred fans there that he did in front of large and loud crowds in New York.
One American that few expected to make an impact in this year’s draw is Taylor Dent. Bedridden for weeks after back surgery in 2007 and out of tennis for over two years, he has taken his serve-and-volley game to the third round at the U.S. Open. His utter joy at being back on a big stage has been contagious. The reaction of the crowd after his five-set, second-round victory over Ivan Navarro was one of the highlights of the tournament thus far.
Even though he faces a tough challenge against No. 2 Andy Murray in the third round, Dent’s performance has erased many question marks about his ability to mount an effective comeback.
The success of the younger American players should have a trickle-down effect to junior players across the United States. When they see someone like Oudin knock off some of the Tour's best players, it is bound to give them confidence about their own chances. The word Oudin has printed on her signature sneakers, “Believe,” could become the mantra for a whole generation of American tennis youth.