09.06.09

The City of Underdogs

The wonder of the U.S. Open is that, like New York itself, anything can happen, as John Connolly discovered this weekend, reminiscing about Arthur Ashe – and witnessing Melanie Oudin take on Maria Sharapova.

The wonder of the U.S. Open is that, like New York itself, anything can happen, as John Connolly discovered this weekend, reminiscing about Arthur Ashe—and witnessing Melanie Oudin, who is now one of the youngest American women to enter the quarter finals, take on Maria Sharapova.

New York City is a wonderful town. It is a place where ordinary as well as extraordinary people come to make their mark, fulfill their dreams, and very often surpass their goals. More years ago than I care to remember, when I as a rookie New York City Police Officer, one of my partners was a truly funny and outgoing man named Mel Ashe. One day Mel invited a carful of his colleagues to visit his cousin, “the tennis player,” at the old Forest Hills Tennis stadium.None of us were tennis buffs, but we went and I had the opportunity to meet Arthur Ashe. He was incredibly kind and generous of spirit to a bunch of rough-edged cops. He went so far as to offer to get us a few beers and hot dogs.

Saturday, I traveled to the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center covering the Third round of the United States Open Championship for this website, sitting in the stadium named for this old acquaintance, a legend who died entirely too young.

Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man to win a major tennis title, was all too often an underdog for the wrong reasons, but he triumphed and he did it here in his adopted hometown, New York.

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New Yorkers love underdogs. But they must be our underdogs. We decide who we cheer and who we don’t. By that I mean that is it not enough that you come into a match or game against an adversary who is heavily favored. Or that you are going up against a highly ranked or seeded player while your ranking is not even on the charts-or that you are seven inches shorter than your opponent. Nor is it enough to be wearing an Ace bandage that goes halfway down your left thigh. Nope, it takes more than that to get New York fans to cheer you on. You must have grit, determination, and you have to let us see it.It also doesn’t hurt if you give a couple of quick fist pumps when you win a really decisive point.Nor is it a bad thing to have the word “Believe” on your half pink-half gold tennis shoes.

That is exactly what seventeen year-old Melanie Oudin (pronounced Ou-Dan) did Saturday afternoon at the US Open to get the 20,000 or so fans standing on their feet to cheer her on in her match against former champion Maria Sharapova.

The match was classic David vs. Goliath. Oudin is all of 5-foot-6 while Sharapova is well over six feet tall. Sharapova, although coming back from shoulder surgery last year, years of experience playing at this level. Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, had to play a series of qualifying rounds to get into the Open tournament.

Sharapova was wearing an exquisite pink tennis dress with light white stripes complete with iridescent green trim and white tennis sneakers. Oudin on the other hand complimented her tennis shoes with a plain purple skirt and grey tennis top. As I overheard one observer say, “That kid from Georgia is dressed like she’s in a pick up game at the local high school.”

Oudin was less than stellar in the first set and lost 3-6 to Sharapova’s overpowering forehand. The Russian-born Sharpova, who’s been in the USA since she was seven, appeared ready to coast to another victory on her comeback attempt.But Oudin had other ideas. Somewhere in the middle of the second set, Oudin’s game came together. You could see the determination. When she finally won the second set 6-4 the crowd made the kid from Georgia their underdog and gave her a standing ovation. They were behind her the rest of the match.

The third set was not pretty, including a game interruption when Sharapova summoned her trainer to take a look at her right elbow that was giving her trouble.She looked to be holding back tears. But despite a number of service breaks by both women, Oudin fought through to win 7-5.

Oudin received a standing ovation and told the crowd, “I just kept fighting as hard as I could, I couldn’t even believe it.” She went on to say, “I don’t even know what to say right now…thank you so much for cheering for me.”

The crowd, including New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history almost two years ago, roared in a approval. An Big Apple underdog was born.

Xtra Insight: Check out The Daily Beast's latest U.S. Open photos and reports.

John Connolly is a former New York City detective turned journalist. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, and is currently finishing a book called The Sin Eater on disgraced and imprisoned Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano.