melanie oudin
Amy Sancetta/AP
Melanie Oudin reacts during her match against Nadia Petrova of Russia at the U.S. Open in New
York, Monday, Sept. 7, 2009.

Oudin Breathing New Life Into US Tennis

September 09, 2009 08:00 AM
by Liz Colville
Melanie Oudin isn’t the first U.S. tennis star to break onto the scene as a teenager, but her style of play has injected some of Justine Henin into the current U.S. team.

Oudin, Flashing “Believe,” Beats Top Russians

Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old Marietta, Ga., native, became the youngest American in 10 years to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open when she beat Nadia Petrova of Russia, the 13th seed, on Labor Day.

Petrova isn’t the first power-serving, high-ranked Russian player Oudin has beaten; she is the fourth. In the first round, she defeated unseeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets. In the second round, she beat fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva, and in the third round, she upset Maria Sharapova.

Her swift rise, from world junior No. 2 to a WTA top 20 contender, has seen her likened to Chris Evert and Tracy Austin, American legends who came far in the U.S. Open as teenagers: Austin won at 16 and Evert reached the semi-finals at 17. As the Associated Press notes, Oudin was ranked 221 in the world a year ago, though she hinted of success to come when she ousted Jelena Jankovic, formerly No. 1 in the world, in the third round of Wimbledon last June.

This tournament, she’s made a habit of dropping the first set to her opponents, but even the record-breaking world No. 1 Roger Federer isn’t immune to that weakness. “I don’t actually mean to lose the first set,” Oudin told AP. “I sometimes just start off slowly, I guess. Maybe I’m a little nervous.”

An energetic, modest Oudin has, over the course of the past four matches, given way to a more confident player, someone who sees herself as increasingly deserving of her wins. With the word “believe” tacked to her colorful Adidas tennis shoes, Oudin doesn’t speak of a religious faith; rather, she speaks of a faith in herself.

“It’s like now I know that I do belong here,” she was quoted as saying in The New York Times following her defeat of Petrova, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3. “This is what I want to do, and I can compete with these girls no matter who I’m playing. I have a chance against anyone.”

Oudin faces Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, who is seeded ninth, on Wednesday, Sept. 9. The U.S. Open Web site features live daytime and nighttime streaming of major matches.

Background: Homeschooled and watching Henin

Oudin, who has a twin sister, Katherine, started playing tennis with her sister at age 7 and started with her current coach, Brian de Villiers, at the age of 9, according to AP. She started homeschooling at 12 so she “could focus squarely on tennis,” the AP’s Howard Fendrich explains, while Katherine worked up to national junior tournaments but continued a traditional education.

Oudin’s idol is Justine Henin, who abruptly retired last May while ranked No. 1 in the world. Henin won seven grand slam titles in her nine years on the WTA tour and made her decision to leave just prior to the French Open, which she had won four times. But rumors of a comeback, reported in The Australian and elsewhere, may come to fruition, especially if Henin is watching Oudin and the comeback of fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, who gave birth to a daughter in 2008.

The pair has more in common than an Adidas sponsorship, blond ponytail and 5’6” frame. Their tennis games are very similar. Rather than being tall women with big serves like Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters, Henin and Oudin rely on their nimbleness around the court, precise backhands and clever net work to make up for their lack in stature. Henin’s great strength was her one-handed backhand, something Oudin occasionally uses and might come to perfect. Henin also had a strong serve, according to Encyclopedia Britannica in its biography of the player, and was able to remain cool and consistent on the court despite emotionally taxing family issues, including the death of her mother from cancer in 1995 and a divorce in 2007.

She is no Henin yet, but Oudin’s game is “suffused with a fierce competitive streak and an unbending tenacity that douses the apparent weaknesses in her game,” Tim Joyce writes for RealClearSports. She, like Henin, is “instill[ing] a more creative element in women’s tennis.”

Related Topic: Junior tennis players turn to homeschooling

Examining some of this year’s U.S. Open contenders, The New York Times notes that several are urged by coaches, or by their own competitive drive, to switch from regular schooling, where they can “fall behind” while trying to simultaneously train on a rigorous schedule, to homeschooling. The latter option lets many players aspire to Roger Federer’s “ambitious junior tournament schedule,” as it did for Marcos Giron, or simply to catch up to homeschooled rivals. Giron’s father said he was hesitant at first, but “did not want his son to live with unresolved questions about his tennis potential.”

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