New York’s Falconi Gets The Big Stage

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Venus Williams may have been Willy Pipped today.

After the elder Williams sister pulled out of the tournament with an autoimmune disease, Irena Falconi had her second round match moved from Court 11 to Arthur Ashe Stadium and the 21 year-old New Yorker seized the opportunity.

“When I walked in,” she said, “I was trying to distract everyone that I was drinking water, but I was looking at my environment and really just adapting to what was about to happen. Yeah, I definitely took a second to really look at my surroundings.”

But in the end the young American came through against 14th seed Dominika Cibilkova , 2-6 6-3 7-5.

It was the thrill of a lifetime for the 78th ranked Falconi, who started waving an American flag after her win.

“It was totally out of instinct,” she said.  “I have the flag in my bag.  It’s a good luck flag that was given to me by my trainer, Kim Wilson.  I really felt that it couldn’t have been a more perfect time.”

And maybe Falconi is coming along at the perfect time. So much has been said about the slump American tennis is suffering through that someone like Falconi could easily fill the void. Like Christina McHale this year and Melanie Oudin a few years ago, she can be an up and comer for the US circuit.

It’s something she knows and is sure to tell everyone who listens.

“I’ve heard so much about media talking about American tennis, and I really wanted to portray that there’s a huge wave of American players,” she said.  “I have an American coach and trainer, Jeff and Kim Wilson.

“I strongly believe in all that is USA, and I wanted to represent it and show the world that it’s coming.  It’s coming.  No need to wait any longer.”

If you look at Falconi, she doesn’t look like a typical tennis player. Actually she looks more like your little sister or the girl next door. At 5’4’’, she has thought to have been too short and not the right shape to compete at competitive tennis at a high level. And the braces on her teeth make her look like she’s 15 rather than the legal drinking age.

But all of this drives the Ecuadorian native.  She didn’t come from tremendous means with her parents immigrating to the Washington Heights, NY in 1993. And then she moved to Florida in 2004 to perfect her game.

Now just seven years later, the sky’s the limit for this young girl.

“I don’t really think there’s a limit,” Falconi said.  “I’ve been told that I’m 5’4″, in case you didn’t know.  One thing I did go in there today knowing was that I was taller than my opponent, which was huge.

“I know Justine Henin, she was 5’6″ and she was 1 in the world.  I know for a fact if she can do it, why not?”

That’s a question every woman is asking in this Open. Why not? With seeded players getting knocked out all over the place today this may be a year when an up and comer just happens to win the Open.

“Tournament’s not over yet.” she said, “There’s still five other matches to be won.  There’s still doubles and mixed.  So this is definitely a fortnight.  It’s not over yet.  I’m just so excited.  My team and I are just so excited for what’s to come.”

With an attitude like that, Venus may not be the only player she replaces this week.






The Tour Is Better With Henin

For a while there, it looked like Justine Henin’s comeback would mirror fellow countrywoman Kim Clijsters by winning her first major on her first try.

Alas though, this time Serena Williams did not melt down and the former No. 1 had to settle for runner up in the Oz Open, after she lost the final. 4-6 6-3, 2-6.

“Of course disappointed, I mean, when you lose in the final of a Grand Slam, especially in three sets, and I got a few opportunities that I haven’t been able to take,” Henin said.“But this feeling of disappointment cannot take advantage on all the things I’ve done in the last few weeks. And it’s just more than what I could expect for. I just have to remember that.

“Even if it’s quite soon after the match now, I’m sure there will be a lot of positive things I can think about in a few days. It’s been almost perfect. Just the last step, I couldn’t make it.”

It really was almost perfect for Henin after she came back from almost a two year absence. Retiring on May 2008, the tour really hasn’t been the same without her. Too many nondescript beautiful Eastern Europeans competing along with the Williams Sisters dominated the tour and not enough of the pizzazz Henin brought to the table.

Maybe that’s why the press went ga-ga for Melanie Oudin at the US Open. The sport needed an everywoman – an average sized powerhouse that tramples the competition.

With Henin, it has it back.

“She can go really far,” said Williams after the final match. “As you saw today, she took me to the umpteenth level. She clearly hasn’t like lost a step at all since she’s been gone.

“So I feel like I played a girl who’s been on the tour for the past five years without a break.”

Henin being back the sport has someone all fans can love. She’s not a model, nor does she act like a superstar. Rather, you have the girl next door, who hasn’t changed since the world first saw her back in 1999.

Now we may see a new Henin, who will pick and choose her matches, much like Clijsters, who could not follow up her Open win. She says she will play in Indian Wells in March and then look forward to Roland Garros in May, so obviously this is just the beginning.

Yet, the tour has their star back, as Henin looks refreshed from her absence from the game and she knows there’s plenty of work to be done if she wants to be No. 1 again.

“I’ll be focused on what I have to improve in the next few weeks, the next few months,” she said. “I’ve only played two tournaments. It’s the end of January. The season is still very long. I want to enjoy every moment I spend on the court and be very smart about the calendar and everything.

“Winning big tournaments, just get better, get better, get better. That’s my motivation, and the rest comes. If I get better, if I improve, if I work hard, the rest will come. So I’m not focused on who’s No. 1 or whatever at the moment or where I can be in a few months.

“I have some goals, of course, but I just don’t want to look too far. Everything went pretty fast, fast enough already in the last four weeks. It’s just time to calm down and think about the future.”

And with that, another successful comeback is in the books and the women’s tour is so much better for it.

A Star Is Born!

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – She looks like Reese Witherspoon, has the enthusiasm of your kid in a candy story, has the personality of the girl next door.

Yup, Melanie Oudin is a star in the making.

And after her fourth round victory, she is the shining light of the 2009 US Open.

But if you ask her, fame doesn’t matter. In fact, all these victory hasn’t changed the 17 year-old. She’s still just a normal kid.

“It’s not hard for me,” Oudin said. “I’ve always been like this. So just because all of this is happening, it’s not like I’m going to change the person. I just love to play tennis and I’m doing well and I’m winning. That’s the only thing that’s changing.”

Her smile is so refreshing. In a sport filled with self-absorbed personalities, Oudin is the breath of fresh air. Serena Williams can be prickly when her game is not up to snuff and Maria Sharapova has become more and more a narcissist. Even Venus Williams, who always has been very nice, doesn’t have the same youthful exuberance of 10 years ago.

No, that goes to Oudin, who plays each match like she just won the US Open.  Some may say that she is showing up her opponent, but her cheering is natural and something that comes out because frankly she’s never done it before.

We all have dreams, and Oudin’s is to be a star tennis player. With her four victories in the past week, she’s become that and now has to look ahead when the competition will get just a little harder.

But she believes in herself and keeps the word “Believe” on her purple and yellow sneakers. It’s that motto that drives her and the reason why she is still playing in Flushing.

“Going into the tournament,” she said, “I did believe that I could compete with these girls, but it was just figuring out a way to win in these tough matches and these pressure situations actually coming through and winning.

“So now, even if I get a set down, I still, like, believe in myself and my game. I know that if I fight as hard as I can, do the best I can, hopefully I can do it.”

Oudin’s charm is matched by her skill. She is not the biggest player in the world, nor is she the hardest hitter. But she may be the most fearless. As her back gets against the wall, this young lady comes out swinging. In each of her matches this week, Oudin dropped the first set, only to fight back.

“I don’t actually mean to lose the first set,” Oudin said. “I sometimes just start off slowly, I guess. Maybe I’m a little nervous and all this stuff.

“I think it does help me because I’ve been in that situation many times of losing the first set and being able to come back and win. Because I do well with forgetting about the first one and starting over like it’s a totally new match, so I forgot about the first set, and I’m just going to start off and my mind is going to be just on what’s happening right then.”

She is so impressive that the stars are taking notice. Venus and Serena Williams both said some nice things abut her yesterday and the Swiss Master, Roger Federer gave her props today after his straight-set win over Tommy Robredo.

“She’s beaten great players on the way now,” Federer said. “I think it’s kind of nice someone is coming up that we haven’t heard of, because so many of the women are known. I think it’s very exciting and very needed on the woman’s side.
“I haven’t seen all her matches, but the quality of players she’s beat is fantastic. Today, the way she fought and stayed with [Nadia] Petrova was very nice to say.”

No one knows if Oudin will last past the Quarterfinals, but it’s conceivable that she can advance to the finals, because of all the upsets in her bracket.

Mainly though thanks to her own work, by taking out Elena Dementieva, Sharapova and Petrova, Oudin has cleared the way for her own path to the finals.

Yet even if she doesn’t, it’s safe to say Oudin has become a star already and in 2009, she’s become the shining beacon of the Open.