The Tiny Little Saviors of Women’s Tennis

On a glorious afternoon on Labor Day, there were close to a thousand paying tennis fans squeezed between the fountains outside Arthur Ashe Stadium watching an oversize television.

Melanie Oudin, a 17-year-old pint-size, freckled-faced blonde from Georgia, had grabbed their attention. After being obliterated in the first set, then down a break in the second and two games away from losing the match, Oudin began a ruthlessly methodical comeback. She was stony and determined. There was a clenched fist and a “Come on!” after nearly every winning point. Her fearsome appearance bore no resemblance to her off-court persona: a big-bubble-gum, giddy tourist who can’t get over how amazing (!!!) the Open is.

The fans loved it.

“I’m staying out here even though I wanted to get a seat for the Isner match at Armstrong,” said Naomi Lowenthal, a 49-year-old from Larchmont, among the throng outside electing to watch TV. “My husband has been texting me to come get a seat, but I can’t leave now, no way! This reminds me of Chris Evert.”

Others, like the person sitting next to her, Gale Axelrod, a 52-year-old who lives in Gramercy, evoked the Williams sisters and their emergence a decade ago.

Over the past few years, the women’s game—by far the more appealing product in the pre-Federer, pre-Nadal era—has been in prolonged decline. Indifference, injuries and tedium consumed the game. The Williams sisters have become a tired act. A new vanguard of Russians can’t hold a candle to the Williams sisters in big matches. The would-be stars—Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic—are all around 6 feet tall, and rely on booming forehands, backhands and raw power to win. There’s little art.

But, finally, the women’s game seems watchable again, thanks to two diminutive players who have hijacked the 2009 U.S. Open: the emerging star, Oudin (5-foot-6), and a 26-year-old out-of-retirement mom, Kim Clijsters (5-foot-8). They’ve got compelling backstories. They’re fun to talk to. They play cerebral, thrilling tennis, and they conspicuously love playing the game.

Their success seems to defy physics.

“Oudin doesn’t play this monotonous tennis, and neither does Clijsters,” said Jon Wertheim, the Sports Illustrated writer and author. “Clijsters is a terrific athlete who shows some variety. It’s not the mindless bashing that makes some of these players indistinguishable. Same for Oudin—she uses the whole court. She’s noticeably smaller than most players, and that’s part of the appeal, too. Some of it, yes, people can’t tell a Jankovic from a Safina, but I think people appreciate that this is a different way of playing tennis.”

In the case of Oudin in particular, her success seems to defy physics.

After she defeated Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon, Jankovic said that Oudin “cannot hurt you with anything—she doesn’t have any weapons.”

After Oudin stunned Maria Sharapova on Saturday afternoon, the former U.S. Open champion immediately shot that theory down. “Shocking she would say that,” she replied, when told of Jankovic’s comments.

So what sort of weapons does she have, Maria?

“Ummmmm,” she said, “she moves really well. She has a pretty good forehand as well. It’s pretty solid and deep. She’s a good competitor?”

Much easier to assess what she doesn’t have: Ivanovic’s forehand, Henin’s backhand, Serena Williams’ serve.

But she plays smart, she hits to the angles, she runs her opponents all over the court. She makes up for her height in creative ways. She offers variety in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.

The Tiny Little Saviors of Women’s Tennis