U.S. Open a harbinger for these players
These players have had some spectacular ups and plunging downs in the past season. It's anyone's guess whether they'll flame out or fire up at the U.S. Open.
"Almost every person in the United States expects me to win every single match I play.
"This year, I'm the one to see at U.S. tournaments because Serena is not playing the Open now."
Oudin might be getting a little over the top, but so was the hype around her run to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open last year. It's true the teen's year was impressive -- fourth-round showings at Wimbledon, Charleston and Stanford as a qualifier, and back-to-back challenger wins even before Flushing Meadows. And she showed a lot of heart and gritty tennis at the U.S. Open.
But at the same time, it wasn't really enough to portend the second coming of Chris Evert. Her four wins were all against Russian basket cases (in that period, anyway) -- remember how ugly the match against Maria Sharapova was?
This year, it's Oudin who is the basket case. She had a decent run between February and April but has gone 3-11 since the European clay season began, with eight first-round losses and no wins over players in the top 50. She might not have been as good as the U.S. Open quarterfinal implied, but she's better than this.
The good news is that she's done such a good job of lowering expectations that even one win at Flushing Meadows will feel like a major victory this time around. And at 18, one write-off season is no big deal as long as she can accept it and pick herself back up. Jelena Jankovic lost 10 straight matches and considered retirement in her early 20s right before making her surge.
After famously wearing shoes marked "Believe" last year, Oudin's footwear catchphrase now is "Courage." But there's one word everyone should keep in mind, including her: perspective.
2. Ana Ivanovic
Ivanovic will finally have some expectations of herself again after reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati three weeks ago.
The last time that situation happened before a Grand Slam event was the French Open, when she had made the semifinals of Rome three weeks earlier. She lost in the second round, 6-0 in the second set. Before that, it was the Australian Open, when she had made the semifinals of Brisbane three weeks earlier, taking Justine Henin to three sets. She then lost in the second round to Gisela Dulko. Do we detect a pattern here?
The other thing Ivanovic took from Cincinnati was the ankle injury she suffered in the semifinals. That means the Serb also will be a little rusty, having missed some practice time and match play as a result.
All in all, it's hard to tell what form she'll show up in at the U.S. Open, and, because she'll be unseeded, what kind of draw she'll face. A complete dark horse.
Safina's tumble is starkly illustrated by the fact that she was the top seed at the U.S. Open last year and will be unseeded this year. The drop has been precipitated by a stress fracture in her back, though a resulting loss of confidence and a split with her former coach hasn't helped, either.
But at least the pain in her back seems to be better, and -- like her new comrade Ivanovic -- Safina has shown slight signs of a turnaround recently. In Montreal last week, she won back-to-back matches for the first time since the Australian Open before losing to Francesca Schiavone. She then defeated Schiavone in the first round of New Haven this week.
All that is still a far cry from where she was a year and a half ago, however, and it's a lot of ground to try to make up in two weeks. Getting to the second week would be a worthy goal.
Pavlyuchenkova was fellow teen Oudin's first victim at the U.S. Open last year, but they've taken very different paths since. Pavlyuchenkova has made her first real upward strides since reaching the semifinals of Indian Wells last year, winning her first two titles and reaching No. 22 in the rankings.
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But she also has been picking up injuries every time she gets on a run. The Russian withdrew from New Haven this week with a hip injury and complained of leg and shoulder problems, as well.
After her summer, Pavlyuchenkova should be primed for a good run at the U.S. Open. But she's not that fond of the city, and if she's not feeling great physically, the time could be ripe for an early exit.
Schiavone's year was made by her French Open victory, regardless of what happens at Flushing Meadows.
"It's a fantastic memory, but I can't keep thinking about two months ago; it's already past," she said this week of her big win.
Yet her match record since is a dismal 3-6. She describes her current form as "OK for the moment -- not great," but warns, "I could be dangerous."
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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