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Ironically, until Saturday, Williams had seemed to be one of the few women players capable of holding her nerve in New York. Since the May 2008 retirement of No. 1 Justine Henin, the women's game had spent nearly every major tournament apologizing for itself, and in Flushing Meadow a parade of top names again flamed out in a flurry of double faults and unforced errors. Yet this time the same top-down weakness that has lodged a flummoxed Dinara Safina in the No. 1 spot allowed the women's game to redeem itself.
Taking more than two years off and then, on the strength of just seven tune-up matches, winning the U.S. Open would be inconceivable for most players. But Clijsters did just that in Sunday's final, beating 19-year-old Danish starlet Caroline Wozniacki 7--5, 6--3 to become the first mother to win a major in 29 years—and the first unseeded woman to do so in the Open era. Still, for Americans starved for some sign of a next generation, even Clijsters's mom-on-a-mission saga couldn't compare with the run of unseeded upstart Melanie Oudin.
Romping in sherbet-colored shoes with BELIEVE stenciled on the sides, the 17-year-old from Marietta, Ga., barreled through the draw like something out of a cold war comic: PONYTAILED TEEN CUTS DOWN THE RUSSKIS! Two-time Grand Slam finalist Elena Dementieva, three-time major champ Maria Sharapova and perennial top-tenner Nadia Petrova won the first set against Oudin before succumbing to her speed and resolve.
After Oudin beat Petrova—with Oudin's parents, John and Leslie, sitting in different rows in the players' box; her coach, Brian de Villiers, urging her on; and her twin sister, Katherine, in tears—the excitement rising around her reached feverish heights. Few knew then just how tough she is: On Aug. 10, John had filed a sworn statement in his year-old divorce proceedings against Leslie in Cobb County, Ga., superior court alleging an affair between Leslie and De Villiers. Leslie denied the allegations in a separate filing; the truth is far from clear. But a tension clearly exists in the Oudin camp, and no one can predict the impact of instant celebrity.
"I've gone from being just a normal, like, tennis player to almost everyone in the U.S. knowing who I am now," Oudin said after her run ended on Sept. 9 with a quarterfinal loss to Wozniacki. "I love to play tennis—and all that comes with it if you do well. And I'm ready for that."
It didn't hurt the women, either, that Federer's run at a sixth straight U.S. Open title ended at the hands of the tall, deceptively agile Del Potro—and didn't include a showdown with Rafael Nadal. With Nadal clearly hampered by a strained abdominal muscle that left him impotent against Del Potro in the semis, and No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic quailing under the big lights, it's clear that a men's game that began the year strong at the top has developed exploitable cracks. That the No. 5 Del Potro, a 20-year-old from the town of Tandil, would be the first man in is hardly stunning. After Federer crushed him at the '09 Australian Open in straight sets, Del Potro found his form in dramatic fashion, beating Nadal in Miami, taking Federer to five sets in the French Open semis and then winning the Washington, D.C., title. Del Potro's win over Nadal on Sunday, despite little sleep the night before, said much about his focus and self-belief, but to dismantle a healthy and motivated Federer is another thing entirely. Wielding a formidable flat forehand, Del Potro overcame early jitters and reduced Federer to a double-faulting, groundstroke-spraying and, in an exchange with chair umpire Jake Garner, cursing mess.
"[Del Potro] should enjoy it; he deserves it," said Federer, who won two of four major finals this year. "This one is easy to get over because I had the most amazing summer."
His one consolation? If the women's side of the Open will be remembered most for one loser's foot fault, maybe it's appropriate that the men's will be for one loser's shot: Up two sets, 6--5, 0--30 in Saturday's semifinal, Federer lasered a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs pass by Djokovic to set up match point. "She foot-faults at 15--30, I hit one through the legs," Federer said of Serena. "How crazy tennis goes sometimes: completely for you or against you. But I don't think it should take away from what Kim has achieved. That's the story here."
Who's going to argue with the sport's ringmaster? Lost in all the nonsense was the fact that Clijsters had pushed Serena to that breaking point. Before her retirement she had been known as a sweet, fragile talent who'd won one Grand Slam title (after losing three finals); now, seemingly past her prime, Clijsters had played the match of her life and rolled to a nearly effortless second major. She figures on playing the major tournaments next year but isn't sure yet about her long-term commitment. But of this she's certain: Motherhood made her better.
"I was the one dominating the points," Clijsters said. "I felt like it was in my hands. That's the biggest reward I've had in this tournament: The result is nice, to win, but mentally it's been a big change for me."