Commentary

Dent, Oudin electrifying Open crowd

Updated: September 6, 2009, 2:20 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Midway through the holiday weekend, it's time to take stock at the U.S. Open.

Men's match of the tournament: For backstory, atmosphere and plain old X-and-O tennis, Taylor Dent's five-set thriller over Spain's Ivan Navarro takes the cake -- and sets up an interesting third-rounder against No. 2 Andy Murray. The two played twice in 2005, when Murray was a spindly 18-year-old first-year pro and Dent was knocking on the door of the ATP's top 20; nonetheless, Murray won both matches.

That was before Dent's two spinal fusion surgeries and a period of immobility, pain and doubt so severe that he contemplated leaving tennis behind and getting a real estate license. But instead of doing deals for other people, Dent, the 28-year-old son of former Australian pro Phil Dent, decided to reinvest in the sport.

Of course, Murray has evolved into an entirely different player as well, with only one man ahead of him in the rankings, a championship appearance here last year and a world of confidence on this surface. He'll go in heavily favored, but Dent's muscular serve-and-volley game is a look that neither Murray nor many of his contemporaries often see.

British commentator Mark Petchey, who was Murray's coach back in 2005, said he thinks Dent looks leaner and moves more fluidly than he did then, but still favors Murray in the matchup. "He'll be able to use [Dent's] pace, and I think he'll get a good read on Taylor's serve,'' Petchey said. "But Andy's going to have to serve smartly, keep his percentage high and keep Taylor at the back of the court.''

Venerable commentator Bud Collins, who called the Dent-Navarro match for DirectTV, said he was more than pleasantly surprised to see a match between two men who were comfortable at the net. "Such a rarity,'' Collins said. "I went into the booth thinking, 'It's going to be some Spaniard camped on the baseline, Dent's going to try to attack, could be sort of interesting.' It turned out to be stupendous.''

Collins added that in seven decades in and around the game, he's never seen anything quite like Dent addressing the crowd with the chair umpire's microphone, which he impulsively borrowed after the match. Dent's subsequent victory laps -- two full circuits to high-five with fans leaning over the railing -- were "so joyful,'' Collins said. The big guy will try to keep the happiness flowing in the next round.

Women's match(es) of the tournament: Fittingly for a twin, Melanie Oudin completed a double whammy in Week 1 by first upsetting fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva and then tripping three-time Grand Slam titlist and 29th seed Maria Sharapova in the space of three days in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The Sharapova match had some ugly stretches for both players. Sharapova's 21 double faults set a new record for a U.S. Open women's match, and Oudin also had trouble holding her serve and closing out a couple of key games. But when Oudin faced the crowd with tears in her eyes after the match, raising her racket in salute like a miniature Statue of Liberty, it marked (A) the only time she had to struggle for composure all afternoon and (B) another kind of liberation for American fans who have been waiting a long time for a U.S. teenager who looks capable of taking the torch from the Williams sisters.

We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but the way Oudin is playing, a berth in the quarterfinals or even semifinals is not out of the question. Her next opponent is -- for the fourth straight match -- a tall Russian. Nadia Petrova, the 13th seed, isn't exactly a bowling pin, but her Slam results have been flatlining, and she has exited the U.S. Open in the third round for the past three years running.

The deejays at Ashe are always on top of the game, and not surprisingly, they've chosen the Beatles "I Saw Her Standing There'' as Oudin's anthem. ("She was just 17, you know what I mean, and the way she looked way way beyond compare.") Oudin is making a lot of hearts go boom around here, all the more so because so few saw this coming.

Unlikeliest hero: That would be the charmingly candid and abruptly rejuvenated Jesse Witten of Naples, Fla., via the University of Kentucky, who made a lot of people wonder where he's been all these years.

[+] EnlargeJesse Witten
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJourneyman Jesse Witten can finally believe he belongs on the tour after a promising U.S. Open performance.

The answer is that he's been laboring in the minor leagues and wondering if he should figure out something else to do for a living. Witten came into the Open ranked No. 276, but his run here -- winning three qualifying matches then upending 29th-seed Igor Andreev of Russia and No. 79 Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina before falling to fourth seed Novak Djokovic in a draining, entertaining four sets -- may be a career-altering moment.

"It would be nice to be able to use this,'' the 26-year-old Witten said. "I mean, it kind of helps to see where I am, playing with some guys that are in the top 100 and top 10 a little bit.

"My biggest thing usually is I feel like I don't belong,'' added Witten, whose chief weapon is a bludgeoning forehand. "I never really said it or tell people that. Just in my mind, I don't know how good I am, so it's good to kind of see that I can play with these guys and I kind of belong a little bit here on the stage.'' The memory should serve him well as he heads back to more modest venues, like a Challenger event in Tulsa, Okla., his destination next week.

Witten got all the usual queries about the perks of The Show, and said he most enjoyed having his laundry done for him. (He got his own room at the Waldorf-Astoria after he made the main draw, or perhaps more accurately insisted on his own room, evicting the buddies who had been sleeping on his floor.) He met reporters in a plain white T-shirt he bought for $10 at a mall, symbolic garb, since he just lost his clothing sponsorship from Nike the day before the qualifying tournament began here. Um, bad timing, although Witten did wear a Swoosh shirt on court anyway.

"I actually just picked up a new [sponsor] with KayBee Sports, a new company,'' Witten said. "Hopefully, they're taking care of something. & If not, I got enough Nike stuff lying around to get me through the year.''

Critic's choices: On the women's side, Kim Clijsters' Sunday afternoon round-of-16 match against Venus Williams is a key test for both. Williams, who is nursing tendinitis in one knee, seems to have gotten into more of a groove since struggling in her opening match. Clijsters looks like one of the happiest campers in New York. Their rivalry was pretty balanced back in the day. Williams won six of their 10 matches, but Clijsters prevailed the last time they met, right here in the 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinals.

ESPN.com prediction: Clijsters in three.

As for the men, Dent and Murray are starring in the late show.

ESPN.com prediction: Murray in four.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.