Oudin's run continues; Safina exits early

NEW YORK -- Melanie Oudin's face was flushed from a mix of exertion and excitement and maybe even a bit of bewilderment -- "Yes, I DID beat Maria Sharapova!" running through her mind -- when she stepped out of the U.S. Open locker room and saw Mom.

The pair embraced, kissed each other on the cheek, and Leslie Oudin told her 17-year-old daughter: "I'm very proud of you." Then they hugged some more, holding tight.

Melanie Oudin is still very much a kid from Marietta, Ga., enjoying the trip of her life in the Big Apple, playing foosball in the players' lounge and using words like "amazing" and "cool" as she works her dizzying way through the draw at Flushing Meadows. Oudin's latest win was the biggest so far: She knocked off three-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 Saturday to reach the U.S. Open's fourth round.

"I just had a blast," said Oudin, who buried her face in a towel and sobbed on the sideline when the match ended.

Sharapova, it bears noting, double-faulted 21 times, the most by a woman in any 2009 tour match. But the 5-foot-6 Oudin's solid groundstrokes and tremendous court coverage -- all those small, squeaky steps -- and veteran-like presence played significant roles, too.

So, perhaps, did the partisan fans, who began hootin' and hollerin' to celebrate their girl's victory right as her racket met the ball on the clinching forehand winner.

"I try to pretend that it's not, like, Arthur Ashe Stadium, playing Maria Sharapova. I try to just pretend it's any other match -- even just practicing. Sometimes I tell myself I'm just practicing at my academy at home, and I'm just playing one of my friends," Oudin said. "So it's not a big deal."

Keeping with the day's theme, No. 1-seeded Dinara Safina exited, too, a 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) loser against 72nd-ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic.

Ahead 6-5 in the third set, Safina had three match points but lost them all.

She blamed herself for that. But she also complained about the court change -- both because she felt disrespected by the move and because she thought organizers could have handled the situation better.

"From my side, I can say, I'm No. 1 player in the world, why did they move me?" Safina said.

The match was shifted from Arthur Ashe Stadium to the smaller Louis Armstrong Stadium because of a late-running afternoon session. The original schedule called for Safina-Kvitova to open the night session in Ashe, followed by a men's match between Tommy Robredo and James Blake. But because things were running late, organizers opted to play those matches simultaneously.

"They just told us, 'We're switching you to Armstrong.' And basically that's it," Safina said. "And I think it's very unfair."

Kvitova didn't seem to mind. Asked after her victory about the court change, she said: "Yeah, doesn't matter for me. I'm not (a) star, so ..."

Her win over Safina ended at 12:50 a.m., about 10 minutes before Robredo wrapped up his three-set victory over Blake next door.

Not that Safina played a whole lot of show-court tennis during her difficult stay in New York. She won a pair of three-setters in the first two rounds, but was unable to pull out another, this one against a 19-year-old with one career title who is only ranked as the fourth-best player in her country.

Safina committed 39 unforced errors and nine double faults -- actually below her averages of 43 and 13 for her first two matches. But she was on the defensive throughout and did nothing to justify her much-critiqued status as the world's top-ranked player.

It's a ranking she's already assured of keeping after this week, even though she leaves still seeking her first Grand Slam championship.

A year ago, Oudin was ranked 221st and lost in the first round in New York. Now she is 70th -- steadily moving up -- and the youngest American woman in the U.S. Open's final 16 since Serena Williams a decade ago.

"Her first goal was to get into the tournament," Oudin's coach, Brian de Villiers said, "and the second one was to win a round here."

Check. Check. And then some, including a second-round upset of No. 4 Elena Dementieva, a two-time Grand Slam finalist and the Beijing Olympics gold medalist.

Oudin has done this sort of thing before. Well, once before: She got to Wimbledon's fourth round this year by defeating former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. After that match, Jankovic harrumphed that Oudin "cannot hurt you with anything; she doesn't have any weapons."

Sharapova disagreed. The 2006 U.S. Open champion was seeded 29th and has yet to fully rebuild her game after shoulder surgery in October, yet is far more experienced in these kinds of matters.

"Got to hand it to her," Sharapova said. "She really stuck to her game plan. She played solid. She made me hit a lot of balls."

Sharapova missed the mark plenty, compiling 63 unforced errors, 19 more than Oudin. All those double-faults, several at key moments, helped Oudin compile an astounding 26 break points -- and she converted eight.

Oudin is 8 inches shorter than the 6-2 Sharapova -- "You know, I sat out there thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, compared to Sharapova, she looks so tiny out there," Leslie Oudin said -- but traded booming groundstrokes from the baseline.

"I can compete with these top girls," Melanie Oudin said. "And if I believe in myself, and my game, then I can beat them."

She's wearing pink-and-yellow sneakers with the word "BELIEVE" stamped near the heel -- it was her boyfriend's idea -- and that mantra clearly has served Oudin well.

It wasn't all that long ago that Sharapova was the up-and-comer, the 17-year-old who won Wimbledon, then tried to make a cell phone call to Mom right there on Centre Court.

So heed Sharapova's words when she says of Oudin: "I certainly think she has a great future ahead of her."

Oudin now faces a fourth consecutive Russian ranked higher than she is: No. 13 Nadia Petrova.

"The funny thing is," de Villiers said, "when the draw came out, I said to her: 'You realize, to win this tournament, you're going to have to beat six Russians and a Williams."

Must have been a tongue-in-cheek comment at the time, but who would doubt Melanie Oudin of Marietta, Ga., now?

The Associated Press contributed to this story.