Wednesday September 9th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, the three biggest names in tennis, all currently remain in this, the fourth and final major of the year. But you could be forgiven for not realizing as much. This has been the U.S. Oudin, an event improbably hijacked by a 17-year-old from Georgia who is having an awesome-amazing-incredible time beating up on bigger and higher-ranked players.

She is the youngest U.S. Open quarterfinalist since Serena in '99 and her matches have taken on the dimensions of a tired After School Special. Undersized player loses first set to more highly regarded player. She starts to claw her way into match. Staring at the message scrawled on her shoes -- Believe! -- she pushes the match to a third set. With the crowd firmly behind her, she relies on pluck and determination at odds with an otherwise sweet demeanor. Eventually she escapes -- Oudini-like -- and wins the match.

In Wednesday night's installment (episode five), she faces another teenager, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, who has played precocious, inspiring tennis herself, most recently beating former U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in a thrilling three-setter Monday night. Wozniacki is Oudin's first non-Russian opponent, bringing a merciless end to musty Cold War references. Wozniacki is also the first opponent Oudin faces who is not a threat to blow her off the court. Which is both good and bad. Raw and brutal force will not be Oudin's downfall. But she's also unlikely to benefit from foes' overhitting errors and double faults that have characterized her earlier matches. Not for nothing does Wozniacki, the first Danish woman to crack the top 10, lead the WTA in wins in 2009.

You can expect long rallies and graceful movement and the kind of tactical tennis that, too often, is seldom in evidence in women's matches. Wozniacki will do well to feast on Oudin's fluttering serves. Oudin will do well to try to dictate play and use a partial crowd to her advantage.

And therein lies the real key to the match: It will be as much about handling emotions as it will be about ball striking and execution. Facing the Belle of the Ball, Wozniacki will be a huge underdog. The first question Wozniacki was asked after her sensational victory over Kuznetsova, the best win of her young career: "What are your thoughts about Melanie Oudin?" It can't be fun for anyone, not least a teenager unaccustomed to the Big Stage, to play in front of 20,000 fans with about 19,900 of them rooting for the opponent.

But adulation brings pressure with it and Oudin, too, will need to compartmentalize. In 10 days, she's gone from a promising, if undersized, prospect to a full-fledged celeb who's attracted the cameras of the morning shows, triggered fights among photographers angling for her image and had her hotel accommodations deconstructed on Web sites. She's handled it all with real aplomb so far, but every news cycle brings another layer of attention.

The winner? We'll say Oudin in three sets. Why mess with the script now?

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