It’s a weird moment for women’s tennis. Not bad, but weird. Watch the bizarre slow-motion video montage of “women who hit very hard” on the Times website. Then watch it again. Underneath the glitter, these Amazons are straight out of Herodotus. But with the exception of the Serena Williams and perhaps the leonine Kim Cljisters, the glittering women here (Dementieva, Jankovic, Stosur, Azarenka, and Zvonareva) are mostly unknown to Americans. Serena’s withdrawal from the 2010 U.S. Open—she needed surgery after cutting her foot—and the absence of Justine Henin, the Belgian known as “the sister of no mercy,” has left the field wide open.
They say that the U.S. Open, with its fast and reliable surface, is the place where the best usually win. But in this year’s hobbled women’s draw, all bets are off—and, though Venus Williams, even with a bum knee, and the resurgent Russian Maria Sharapova, are always contenders, it will most likely be a woman whose name most Americans can’t pronounce, let alone remember. The men have Rafa and Federer; the women . . . Wozniacki and Clijsters?
The Women’s Tennis Association is no doubt praying for the requisite underdog to emerge, preferably an American under six feet tall. Melanie Oudin, last year’s darling, is apparently the most sought-after woman in the tournament, despite the fact that she’s ranked 43rd in the world. Oudin, the sunny, blond, all-American raced to the quarters of the 2009 Open wearing rose and honey-yellow Adidas sneakers inscribed with the word “BELIEVE.” But nobody believes she can do it again; the eighteen-year-old has a 17-20 record this year and came into the tournament on a four-match losing streak. So why is she so popular? Her success last year only accounts for part of it. Unlike the women in the Times video, who look more like LeBron James than Chris Evert, she’s diminutive, scrappy, and has a reassuringly all-around game. This morning, in the showcase Arthur Ashe Stadium, she filleted the court, demolishing the qualifier Olga Savchuk with the kind of tennis that defeated four Russians in a row at the Open last year. (For those who don’t have the Tennis Channel, you can watch many of the matches live on usopen.org.) It’s easy to see Oudin’s appeal—and her potential, if she can develop a big weapon that will counter some of her disadvantage in size—but it’s also hard not to wonder if some of it doesn’t come from a reaction against the rippling quads and veiny biceps of some of the more powerful girls, and against their consonant-laden names. The contrast between Oudin and Serena, the reigning queen of American tennis, can’t be missed either. When Serena lost in the semis at the Open last year after a profanity-filled rant against an official who called her for a foot-fault cost her match point, tournament director Jim Curley called her behavior “threatening.”
I, for one, am rooting for muscles. We’ve always wanted our beskirted players to be pretty; why not gorgeous? And is there anything more astonishing than the wave moving through Samantha Stosur’s quadriceps, echoed by those flowing pink pleats? She has the flanks of a thoroughbred, and the beauty.
Off to the races.
Louisa Thomas is a contributing editor at Newsweek. Her book, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I, will come out in 2011.