Moments after Melaine Oudin finally put Maria Sharapova away after 2 hours and 58 minutes in another stunning upset, Sharapova strolled toward the women’s locker room with her usual confident strut. Sharapova brushed by a handler who was explaining to a perplexed Serena Williams why she was getting an 11 a.m. start time tomorrow morning, well outside a marquee start time. Sharapova didn’t show the slightest bit of disappointment until she got to the locker room door and then grimaced and closed her eyes. Hardly tears, but still, another disappointment: in her last three U.S. Opens she’s lost to a 16-year-old, missed out due to an injury, and today, lost to a 17-year-old.
Sharapova is in many ways representative of women’s tennis over the last few years. She’s a player with inestimable talent, she’s got three Grand Slams in her back pocket. But because of injuries–and arguably, indifference–she hasn’t become the player we quite thought she would.
A few minutes after Sharapova entered the locker room, Melanie Oudin headed toward the women’s locker room. She smiled brightly and gave a forceful high-five to the security guard standing outside the door.
At the moment, it appears she’s been the breakthrough talent the women’s game has been waiting for.
For the last three years that we’ve been covering the Open, we’ve never seen a first week tournament-stopper quite like this match. When Oudin finally hit a forehand winner that will–even more than her win over Dementieva–establish her as a national name, the entire press room stared at televisions and marveled at a celebration on court. It was an event.
In many ways, it was a match Sharapova gave away. She hit into a staggering 21 double faults. She gave Oudin 26 chances to break her serve. (Oudin converted a relatively low 31 percent of them.) But Oudin didn’t go away. She wasn’t unnerved, even though she was playing on broadcast television with raised expectations and against a former champion. Though Oudin herself was broken 8 times, she broke Sharapova 8 times and found herself staying around in points long enough for Sharapova to finally make a mistake (63 unforced errors).
When Dementieva was struggling against Oudin, she tried outpower the 17-year-old Georgian. That didn’t work. Oudin’s game and strategy didn’t give under the pressure of louder grunts and harder forehands. And for today, that’s essentially all Sharapova had to offer.
Oudin is starting to make us believe that she can actually make a real run at this tournament now. Next up: Petrova. After that: Kuznetsova. They’re both eminently winnable matches. In the semis? Maybe Safina.
For the first time since the 1997 U.S. Open (or, perhaps, the 2004 Wimbledon when Sharapova won) when Venus Williams shocked the world and reached the finals, it feels like we’ve got something really special on our hands.
She even sounds different. When players like Ana Ivanovic or Novak Djokovic were making their own names, they were asked what their professional goals were. They gave very manufactured, PR-ready responses: “I want to be the number one player in the world.”
After today’s upset, when Oudin was asked in an on-court interview what her goal ranking was, she said, “If I keep playing like this, I can get as high as…anything!”