On Tennis: Intrigue at the U.S. Open

NEW YORK — The 2009 U.S. Open was nothing if not intriguing. And it was downright exciting for the first time in years.

There were upsets and outbursts, meltdowns and comebacks. There also were two surprising but deserving champions.

The most-discussed development - pesky weather that kept players on the court through Monday aside - clearly was the behavior of three-time champion Serena Williams. The consensus in New York: Williams was right to be upset about a foot-fault call that set up match point in her semifinal against Kim Clijsters, but she took things exponentially too far by threatening a line judge with violence and repeatedly using the most versatile of expletives.

She seemed in her initial statement of apology anything but sorry. A later, more explicit apology showed hints of defiance on the part of the player who proclaimed herself to be “a woman of great pride, faith and integrity.” She was fined $10,000 and may face additional penalties after an inquiry by the Grand Slam administrator.

The Williams controversy unfortunately distracted attention from the remarkable run of Clijsters, who retired two years ago and on a whim decided to return this summer. The 26-year-old Belgian beat five seeded players, including both Williams sisters, en route to her second U.S. Open title - a championship she won with her 18-month-old daughter in attendance.

And then there was the emergence of Georgia teenager Melanie Oudin, whose improbable run to the quarterfinals suggests she may be the future of women’s tennis in the United States. The run of plucky Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki to the final also was refreshing.

Clijsters, Oudin and Wozniacki showed a poise and confidence lacking in many of the top women. Flushing Meadows turned into a pity party for Dinara Safina, Nadia Petrova and Vera Zvonareva, who apparently contracted a disease with symptoms including slumped shoulders, frowns and frustrated looks at coaches.

On the men’s side, Juan Martin del Potro was the top dog at the end, but he was under the radar until the semifinals. His will be a household name now - especially here in the District, where he has won the past two Legg Mason Classic titles. Del Potro, armed with a forehand that may have no equal, absolutely earned the title in New York with his victory against the mighty Roger Federer, who was seeking his sixth straight U.S. Open championship.

Federer has set the bar so high for himself that there is an odd feeling that 2009 will go down as something of a disappointment for him - an absurd notion. Federer won two majors and reached the finals in the other two, a tremendous year by any standard. But Federer’s season was made all the more special by a victory at the French Open that gave him a career slam and by a victory at Wimbledon that gave him a record-breaking 15th major title.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable run,” he said.

But what about those two Grand Slam finals that got away?

In the fifth set against del Potro, Federer simply didn’t play well, shanking groundstrokes and recording uncharacteristic double faults - a failure reminiscent of his shaky performance in the fifth set of the Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal. With Federer, near-perfection is the norm, and anything less creates an empty sensation.

Are any American men ready to make a run like del Potro’s? Apparently not, based on the past two weeks. The Americans were completely absent from the tournament by the fourth round - the worst showing in the Open Era.

John Isner was the last American man standing after securing an upset of fifth-seeded Andy Roddick. Sam Querrey, James Blake, Robbie Ginepri and a horde of others fell early, often to less-heralded players.

Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and general manager of the USTA’s elite player development program, has some work to do.

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