- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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They were the first-week heroes of the U.S. Open -- the players who enlivened the season's final Grand Slam event with a spate of upsets. As the 2009 season winds down, they're already on what might be called the Road to Australia, trying to position themselves for the new year. We do some catching up with the players who made a big early splash in the big pond that is Flushing Meadows.
Dent converted the momentum from his short but sweet U.S. Open sojourn into a win at the Tulsa Challenger event last week, beating fellow American Wayne Odesnik in the final. It was Dent's first tournament win of any kind since 2003. Dent rose to No. 122 in the ATP rankings this week -- his highest perch since July 2006. It's still a long way from his career-best No. 21, but the 28-year-old Dent, who had two spinal fusion surgeries in the interim, says it's a good place to be.
Dent, granted a wild card to the Open, thrilled the New York crowd by upsetting No. 37 Feliciano Lopez of Spain in the first round and then creating one of the tournament's indelible moments when he outlasted another serve-and-volleyer, Ivan Navarro, in five sets on the intimate Grandstand Court. Moved by ferocious crowd support, Dent trotted around the court twice after the match, high-fiving fans.
Dent said he owes his mojo at least partly to a casual conversation he had before the Lopez match with former U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, who told him to "put your blue collar on" during rough spells in matches rather than getting too fixated on perfecting his form. "It had a profound impact on me,'' Dent said this week. "It doesn't make the game any easier, but I took a huge leap forward in my gutsiness and competitiveness.
"In the match against Odesnik, I was making a ton of errors and double faults, and I just told myself, 'This is not going to be a pretty day,' and I just kept fighting for every point. I felt mentally the way [Rafael] Nadal looks."
Dent has received a wild card invitation to the ATP event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next week. Depending on how he does there, he may play qualifying rounds in Tokyo or come back to play a couple of more Challenger events in the U.S. with an eye on boosting his ranking high enough to land a main draw slot at the Australian Open.
Isner will play the most ambitious fall schedule of his short pro career, and that's directly linked to an ambitious goal: He wants to be seeded in Australia in January.
Isner's third-round, five-set thriller over Andy Roddick in New York helped lift him to a career-high No. 39. The last U.S. man remaining in the draw then bowed out to Spain's Fernando Verdasco in four sets in the round of 16. Isner did not play last week and is now No. 41 in the ATP rankings.
The 6-foot-9, 24-year-old University of Georgia product leaves this week for an intercontinental journey that will take him to Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, followed by Valencia, Spain, Basel, Switzerland, and Paris.
"He's never been out of the country for an extended period of time before, so this is going to be a learning curve on many different levels,'' said Isner's coach, Craig Boynton. "He's on the right path, working the right way. The Open showed him he can beat a big player on a big occasion. He does belong."
Oudin turned 18 this week far from her hometown of Marietta, Ga., and light years away from where she started the 2009 season, as a promising American prospect virtually unknown to all but tennis die-hards. Oudin shot up to No. 43 in the WTA rankings after a remarkable performance at the U.S. Open in which she mowed down the formidable trio of Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova before losing to eventual finalist Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.
Oudin left for Asia on Monday with coach Brian de Villiers and is entered in the events in Tokyo (next week) and Beijing (starting Oct. 3). She also could figure into the Fed Cup picture; the U.S. will face defending champion Italy on the road the first week of November. U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez has made no secret of her high regard for Oudin, who won a key singles match for the U.S. in the first round against Argentina in February.
Having reached the age of majority, the eligibility handcuffs come off and Oudin will be able to schedule an unlimited number of WTA-level tournaments next season.
Witten survived three qualifying rounds to claw his way into the U.S. Open main draw, then knocked off No. 30 Igor Andreev of Russia and Argentina's Maximo Gonzalez for his first ATP-level wins. Witten, 26, gave Novak Djokovic a few headaches en route to a third-round loss, and his inspired play earned the University of Kentucky alum new fans and respect.
No. 179 Witten had a bad day in his second match back out on the road at the same Tulsa Challenger won by Dent. But Witten remains focused on making sure he's rankings-eligible for the Australian Open qualifying tournament. He'll play three Challengers in California, then take a week off and decide whether to play more lower-level events or take a crack at qualifying for ATP events in Asia and Europe. "It's a risk -- you can go over there and go a couple of weeks with nothing, no money, no [rankings] points,'' he said. "But the same thing can happen at Challengers.''
Returning home to Naples, Fla., Witten said, was "Back to reality -- back to work. No crowd. Just me and my backyard. It wasn't as fun.'' But he said his Open experience reinforced the knowledge that he can compete at that level.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Melanie Oudin and John Isner were among a quartet of players who gained new fans and new respect at the U.S. Open. Where do they go from here?