At first glance she looks just like any other teen: square face, innocent expression open to the future, stringy blonde hair — just another living-the-good-life American cruising the mall. But Melanie Oudin, a product of the Racquet Club of the Sout
h in Norcross, Georgia, is hardly an ordinary kid. Never has been, never will be.
When she was just seven, her Grandma Jo took her down to the local club and a dynamo was unleashed. Never mind she was small. Really small. Her ambitions were big. When she was nine she saw a couple of players — Venus and Serena — playing at the All England Club. She announced she would play there. When she was 12, she set out on a pilgrimage to the U.S. Open. She told her mom, “I’m going be a player.” She could have gone for soccer, but forget it. She dropped out of public school, began homeschooling and promptly started to destroy her overmatched foes: double bagels were often her goal.
With the heart of a lion and a work ethic to die for, Oudin was not just hoping her skills would bag her a scholarship at Athens or Palo Alto. As she navigated the top echelons of junior tennis — Easter Bowl, Orange Bowl, junior Grand Slams, her ‘tude drew attention.
“She’s so positive, Mommy,” Mary Jo Fernandez’s seven-year-old told the U.S. Fed Cup coach. And soon the diminutive seeker had turned pro and began her against-all-odds odyssey. These dreary days, young American prospects seem to be going nowhere rapidly. Never mind, Oudin was determined to be No. 1. Top pros have five Porches in their oversized garages. Oudin just bought a used Toyota. Conventional wisdom insists that to make it on the Darwinian women’s circuit it’s best to be an ‘ova’ six-foot Eastern Euro.
But not to worry, the 5-foot-6 suburban girl began trolling in the land of the legends. Fernandez named her to the Fed Cup team and she won a match for the U.S. Some dreamers pegged her as America’s answer to Justine Henin. (“Get real,” countered knowing realists.)
Hardly an instant sensation, the 17-year-old suffered her share of bruises. Saddled with a hefty ranking, No. 123, Oudin was hardly an instant sensation. With her generous triple digit ranking, she almost crashed out of Wimbledon qualifying, but survived match points and soldiered on to earn her way into the world’s most celebrated tournament.
Though far from playing on show courts, Oudin, understandably, was star struck. “This is Wimbledon. Oh my gosh!” she thought. But never mind. She downed Austrian Sybille Bammer and Yaroslava Shvedova to reach the third round and for her first appearance on a show court and her premier showdown with a top 10 player.
“Just get in your own world,” her coach, Zimbabwean Brian deVilliers, told her. “Just imagine you’re playing Austin [Oudin’s boyfriend over the past eight months] not a former No. 1.”
Though struggling this season, Jelena Jankovic can be imposing. A swift mover, and murderous counterpuncher, she’s pretty and statuesque and with plenty of attitude. Shooting (“if looks could kill”) glares at her courtside mom and coach, cursing her errant forehand — the diva from the Danube, nonetheless came from two set-points down and took advantage of two Oudin forehand errors to win the first set tiebreak. But all was not well with J.J. Like her fellow Serb Novak Djokovic, Jankovic is prone to on-court breakdowns due to lack of conditioning and even though she won the first set, she moved slowly and seemed ghostly pale, despite her copper complexion. Suffering amidst soaring (“this can’t be Britain”) temps, she later reported, “I felt really dizzy, and I thought that I was just going to end up in the hospital. I started to shake. I was losing consciousness. I was really going to fall down and probably call the ambulance and leave the court. But I came back. I started to feel a little bit better. But, I was feeling quite weak. No power. I wasn’t the same player…It’s some woman problems, as well. It’s not easy being a woman, sometimes.”
No kidding. And despite Jankovic’s diminished condition, Oudin could easily have gagged their third round match. But Oudin is extremely resourceful, and at crunch time in the third set, she stepped on the gas, outhitting the savvy Serbian in one big point after another and came away with an improbable 6-7(8), 7-5, 6-2 victory to race into the fourth round.
While far from tall and lacking an imposing serve, Oudin can give the ball a ride off both wings and during the past year has added a bit of variety to her game, including a nifty slice and soft drop shot. Unlike some teens, she can crush her forehand three different ways, and also has a laser like down-the-line backhand, which allows her to enmesh herself into comfortable patterns. Prior to the match, coach deVilliers went out to see Jankovic practice and noticed that she was nervous and not striking the ball cleanly.
“I told her she had a real chance,” deVilliers said.
He was correct. Oudin was largely dictating play and after squeaking out the tiebreaker, J.J. went on to her back and began to cry while being treated. Oudin then knew she might be able to out tough her. Growing up in humid Marietta and all the hours spent hitting balls in 100 percent humidity paid off, as she didn’t seem to be bothered by the sticky conditions.
“It’s all about confidence and self-belief, “ deVilliers said. “That’s the same for a lot of players. They have to see how well they can play and she saw it. Plus, grass is pretty good for her because her ball goes through the court more.”
Jankovic has won plenty of contests looking like she was about to vomit all over herself, but not on a muggy Saturday on Court 3. The Serbian wasn’t very complimentary, but that was expected after she took another miserable defeat at a ‘09 Slam.
“She was running those balls down,” Jankovic said. “I had to play and I had to hit. That was what made me tired. It was too much for me. She can play if you let her play. But she cannot hurt you with anything. She doesn’t have any weapons from what I’ve seen. I played with half pace. She’s a consistent and quite solid player. She doesn’t make so many mistakes. But she doesn’t do anything either, so it’s like she’s depending kind of on you. And she’s young and she has nothing to lose, no pressure. And then for players like me, which you’re expected to win, you have pressure on yourself.”
In the final three games, as Jankovic loudly complained to her mother, Oudin held at love, broke with a beautiful down-the-line backhand winner and closed out the match with an inside-out forehand that barely skidded over the net.
She had entered the second week of Wimbledon, and remarkably, the tournament was the first time she had ever won a match at a Slam, and she won six, including qualifying.
DeVilliers says that Oudin is a real tennis nut, watching more matches than anyone on tour. She stayed in a nearby dormitory without a TV and shared bathrooms because she and her coach wanted to keep expenses down. She likes her routines and is all about tennis. Oudin could care less that’s she been homeschooled and missed out of the social drama of high school.
“She has a real passion for the game,” deVilliers said.
Oudin added, “It’s a long way from the juniors. But I’ve been working so hard. It was disappointing last year, but I’ve always come back from it. And just being here, playing in the pros is unbelievable. And the fourth round of Wimbledon, I definitely did not see that coming at all.”
Oudin’s dream run came to an end in the Round of 16 when she fell to No. 11 Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 7-5. Oudin gave it her all, but the smart 20-year-old from Poland tripped her up by adeptly mixing up her attack. But the future looks bright.
“Now I know that I can play with these girls and this is what I want to do and this is what I want to be,” Oudin said. “I think it helps a lot with my confidence. I belong here.”