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Hitting the Big Time

By E.J. Crawford

Melanie Oudin was hailed as the women’s player to watch in Sports Illustrated and featured in ESPN The Magazine as a “NEXT” athlete in 2008. Next became now this summer on the lawns of the All England Club, where Oudin won a series of three-set matches—including one over No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic—to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon, her best-ever Slam showing.

Though that performance was billed as a “shocker” by the British tabloids, it was less of a surprise to those who have followed Oudin’s rapid upward trajectory. In the last two years the 17-year-old from Marietta, Ga., has won seven ITF junior events and three USTA Pro Circuit events at the $50,000 level or above, including back-to-back titles this March in Raleigh, N.C., and Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

At No. 124 in the world entering Wimbledon, Oudin was the youngest player, man or woman, in the Top 200, and she already had posted two wins over Top 30 players in tour events, having defeated Sybille Bammer in Quebec City in 2008 and upset Aleksandra Wozniak to reach the round of 16 at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., earlier this year. Of course, neither registered like Oudin’s victory over Jankovic, a five-time Grand Slam semifinalist and the runner-up at the last year’s US Open.

“I was just thinking that she was any other player and this was any other match and I was at any other tournament, you know, not on the biggest stage at Wimbledon playing my first Top 10 player,” Oudin said after the match. “I’ve always been mentally tough on the court, not letting anything bother me on the outside, just focusing and keeping my face on the strings. Just thinking about the match and that’s it.”

That mental toughness served Oudin well against the former world No. 1. Underdogs rarely have the luxury of squandering opportunities against Top 10 players, as Oudin did in failing to win any of her three set points in the opening set. But Oudin, undaunted, battled back for 6-7(8), 7-5, 6-2 victory.

“A lot of players would have crumbled after losing that first set,” ESPN’s Chris Fowler said during the telecast of Oudin’s 6-4, 7-5 loss to No. 11 Agnieszka Radwanska in the round of 16. “And even though Jankovic was struggling with the heat, [Oudin] came up with the big shots to win the match.”

In fact, Oudin has made a habit of grinding out wins. She was down multiple match points in the first round of the qualifying draw before rebounding to defeat Australia’s Sophie Ferguson, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. And after two easy wins to qualify for the main draw, Oudin also lost the first set in her first round match against Bammer, the 29th seed at Wimbledon, and in the second round against Yaroslava Shvedova.

Oudin pulled out a similar victory under pressure in the U.S.’s first round Fed Cup tie against Argentina. With the U.S. trailing, 2-1, in the best-of-five tie, Oudin rallied to defeat Betina Jozami, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, in what would prove to be the key match of the U.S.’s 3-2 victory.

“It was up to Melanie to really fight and find a way to win, which is what she did,” Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez says. “She really dug deep. For someone so young, playing in her first Fed Cup when it’s all on the line there, she had to win to stay in it and she really came through. I [was] really proud of her.”

Generously listed at 5-foot-6, Oudin lacks a powerful serve to earn her free points. But she does possess excellent speed and penetrating ground strokes off both wings, as well as a delicate drop shot she used liberally to defeat Jankovic.

“There’s not much I can do about my height, you know,” Oudin says. “I wish I was a little bit taller, but there are advantages and disadvantages. I take what I have and I do the best I can with it. I think speed is my key thing. I have to be quick on the court because I’m not a lot bigger.”

Oudin’s next big test will come at this year’s US Open, where all eyes will be on her to see if she can match her results at Wimbledon. The good news for the teenager is that Flushing Meadows is familiar territory. It was a trip to US Open at age 12 that convinced Oudin she wanted to be a tennis champion, and she was the only player to take part in the main draw of five US Open events in 2008—the women’s and girls’ singles and doubles, and the mixed doubles—advancing the semifinals in singles and the quarterfinals in doubles in the girls’ draws.

Repeating those junior results on the women’s circuit will be her next challenge, but Oudin says she has no plans to look ahead. Staying focused is what brought her to the fourth round at a Grand Slam and to No. 70 in the world following Wimbledon, so why change now?

“I don’t think about, ‘Oh my gosh, Melanie, you’re the next upcoming American. Everyone is looking at you. All the pressure’s on you.’ I don't ever let that bother me,” Oudin says. “My goal has always been, since I was little, to become No. 1 in the world one day. I know that it’s going to take a lot more work and I’m going to have to get better and better. But I’m willing to work on it.”
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