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Believe it: Melanie Oudin Here to Stay

Sep 10, 2009 – 3:05 AM
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Lisa Olson

Lisa Olson %BloggerTitle%

NEW YORK -- Does the word "Believe" scripted on Melanie Oudin's shoes carry any less weight now that she has been knocked out of the U.S. Open? Should she scratch madly at those seven letters, pretend they were conceived out of nothing more than a childish whim?

Of course not, because to do so would suggest Oudin never really possessed the sort of inner faith many of us could only hope to achieve in a lifetime of attempts and failures and do-overs. She is 17 years old, and when Oudin wakes today she'll believe more than ever.

It is the conceit of teenagers to think they can do anything at anytime. They are invincible, indestructible. In the next breath, they are a bundle of angst and insecurities. And teenage girls? Their moods fluctuate as often as the wind. Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl or raised one or been around one when the malls open understands this irrefutable truth: these creatures are usually a broken fingernail away from coming unhinged.


Even Serena Williams has admitted to suffering from bouts of "LSE" -- her term for "low self-esteem." In a rare glimpse of vulnerability, Williams once admitted, "I'm a little insecure and I'm working on it. A lot of females that are in a position where they're really successful might just go home and be a little insecure."

That's what makes Oudin such a fresh and welcome figure on the tennis circuit. She was on the wrong end of a 6-2, 6-2 quarterfinal defeat Wednesday night to Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark who, at 19, is technically still a teen herself. But Wozniacki is also a polished veteran of a tour that can be cutthroat and mean girls vicious. She needed only 88 minutes under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe court to put away the kid from Marietta, Ga., and then charmed the pro-American crowd by basically apologizing for ruining their evening and Oudin's magical romp through the Open.

"It was a really tough match for me against Melanie. I mean, she's had such a great run, such a great tournament. It's always tough to play against a home favorite," said the ninth-seeded Wozniacki, after rushing her opponent through a string of early unforced errors and eradicating the dazzling forehand and footwork that had swept Oudin through much of the fortnight.

Oudin's post-match tears were brief, private. By the time she reached the interview room, she had reverted to the bubbly, vivacious teen who has enchanted the country and given hope to American girls that they, too, might reach a level that lately has been occupied mostly by the sisters out of Compton, Calif. At 5-6, with a gymnast's coiled build, Oudin hasn't the power of Serena or Venus, but she shares the one trait that has always separated them from much of the pack.

The girl believes.

"Now I realize that, " Oudin began, and she inhaled softly, her voice rising in a kind of Valley Girl cadence. "I mean, I got to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, so I know that hopefully I can do it again and again."

She spoke in giddy exclamation points, after struggling through a match in which her impatience seemed to overrule the guile and dazzling footwork that had helped her knock off two U.S. Open champions. Ranked No. 70 entering the tournament, the spunky teenager beat a string of taller, higher-ranked Russians, her cult following gaining speed every time Oudin nailed a forehand winner.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Oudin entourage was a mixture of nerves and wide-eyed conviction that the kid who still does the gardening at her local tennis club couldn't fail. Oudin and her boyfriend Austin Smith, a soon-to-be 16-year-old on the juniors circuit who doesn't mind playing second fiddle to his GF, arrived at Flushing Meadows around noon, practiced, fidgeted, ate, fidgeted, hit the practice courts again and paced some more waiting for Oudin's first grand slam quarterfinals to begin.

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Hoping for More Oudin Magic
Michele Stanford (L) and Charlotte Kitchen (R) react from the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Georgia after Melanie Oudin lost her match on September 09, 2009. Oudin who lost to Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in the match trains at the club. Photo by Tami Chappell
Tami Chappell
Tami Chappell

Hoping for More Oudin Magic

    Michele Stanford (L) and Charlotte Kitchen (R) react from the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Georgia after Melanie Oudin lost her match on September 09, 2009. Oudin who lost to Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in the match trains at the club. Photo by Tami Chappell

    Tami Chappell

    Members of the Racquet Club give a standing ovation after the match of Melanie Oudin as they watched from the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Georgia on September 09, 2009. Oudin who lost to Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open trains at the club. Photo by Tami Chappell

    Tami Chappell

    Coach Jan Steffen who coaches Katherine Oudin, who is the twin sister of Melanie Oudin at The Walker School in Marietta, Georgia on September 09, 2009. Steffen coaches Katherine at The Walker School while Melanie trains at the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Ga. Picture on screen is of Katherine Oudin. Photo by Tami Chappell

    Tami Chappell

    Ansley Reynolds reacts to a point as she watches the match of Melanie Oudin from the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Georgia on September 09, 2009. Oudin who played Caroline Wozniacki in the match trains at the club. Photo by Tami Chappell

    Tami Chappell

    David Brunelle (L) and Mary Cropper (R), cheer as they watch the match of Melanie Oudin from the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Georgia on September 09, 2009. Oudin who played Caroline Wozniacki in the match trains at the club. Photo by Tami Chappell

    Tami Chappell


It was also her first quarterfinals night match, and when it was delayed so the day crowd could exit and the evening crowd could arrive -- try moving 23,000 folks in and out quickly, at rush hour -- Oudin became understandably antsy. She rushed up the stairs to the players lounge, looking for a familiar face.

"What should I do for 35-40 minutes? That's forever!" she told Brian de Villiers, her longtime coach. The entourage -- de Villiers, Smith, mom Leslie, Oudin's fraternal twin Katherine and younger sister Christine -- ushered Oudin to the cafeteria for a plate of comfort food.

Her coach says it's the sacrifices, the 6 AM practice times and lack of normal social life, that set Oudin apart from almost every other teen. He never has to wind her up or soothe her hurt feelings. "She's not like other girls in American tennis," de Villiers said. "So many of them don't want to trade in the comforts and dream really big. They don't really believe in themselves, not to the level it takes to really be the best. Melanie does. She always has."

Soon the entourage was pulling black T-shirts over their summer attire, the word "Believe" stretched across their chests. It was the tousled haired Smith, the 15-year-old boyfriend, who came up with the slogan, though to call it that makes it sound trite. She called him before the tournament, said her sponsor wanted her to think of a word to etch on her electric pink and yellow tennis shoes. Her name was too obvious, Melanie told Austin. Did he have a better suggestion?

"Believe was the first thing that came to mind," Smith said. "I always thought the word meant so much. It can go a lot of ways but when I think of belief I think of believing you can do whatever you put your mind to."

In the near year they've been dating, Smith said he's never witnessed Oudin have a weak moment where she doesn't think she's good enough, strong enough, worthy of it all. You know, the typical moment most teenage girls experience about 100 times a day.

"Never. She really doesn't care what anyone thinks," said Smith, a top-10 player in the boys' under-14s who met Oudin while they were both training at Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Ga.

It's the cocoon of strength around Oudin that nurtures her confidence, keeps it in check. De Villiers pushes her to overcome her size by playing smarter than everyone, and using all her weapons. "This kid," he said of Oudin, "she'd never do that bang-bang-bang stuff you see all the time in juniors and everywhere else. She knows better than that. " Katherine, the twin who attends regular high school while Melanie is home-schooled, pursues her own dreams of being an obstetrician, but keeps her sister in the teen loop with tales from her own chosen path, like the wonders of prom and homecoming dances.
"[When] I really think about it, I really have had an incredible two weeks. I should be proud of myself," Oudin said.
Leslie, mother of the wunderkind, can't quite explain the formula behind raising such a self-assured teenager -- it might be easier explaining how to build the atom bomb -- but even after Oudin's stunning trip through the Open came to an end, it was fairly clear there wouldn't be many crying fits in the night ahead.

"We've tried to lay a foundation of being appreciative of what you have," said Leslie, who has been sharing a king size bed with Melanie at their midtown hotel. "Melanie's very unique and she's very gifted. She's had more experiences at a younger age [but] if somebody wants to be a doctor or a lawyer they go after it. Maybe [we] started a little earlier. Very seldom do you hear ... her complain or doubt herself. She might need a break now and then but she's always wanted to play."

(Hours later, after Melanie and her entourage had left the tennis grounds, SI.com broke a story based on records from Cobb County (Ga.) Superior Court showing that Melanie's father, John, filed for divorce from Leslie, on July 24, 2008. In the complaint, John Oudin filed for divorce on grounds of adultery, alleging that his wife had been unfaithful with Melanie's coach, Brian de Villiers. In her response to the complaint, dated Aug. 12, 2008, Leslie Oudin denied the allegation. Though the initial complaint was filed last summer, the Oudin's family strife hadn't been widely reported until the SI.com story appeared following Wednesday's quarterfinal match.)

There was a momentary huddle after the loss to Wozniacki, when Oudin buried her face in a pink towel to hide her tears and apologized to her coach and mother and sisters for ... well, for what? They told her to stop being so tough on herself, that she had survived an astonishing couple of weeks. Losing isn't good enough, she muttered, but in a matter of minutes she was back to bouncing on her striking ping-and-yellow toes and embracing the moment.

"[When] I really think about it, I really have had an incredible two weeks. I should be proud of myself," Oudin said.

In the next beat, she began chatting about her crazy time here, the experiences she never imagined having -- but not because she didn't believe. But who could envision such delicious details? There was her win over Maria Sharapova on Arthur Ashe Stadium -- "Definitely did not see that coming!" Oudin gushed. There was Roger Federer seeking her out, telling her congratulations. And the voice in her head was reminding her to tell him congratulations about becoming a father of twins, all that stuff, "and my mind just kind of froze getting to meet him!"

"These past two weeks have been really different for me. I've gone from being just a normal like tennis player to almost everyone in the United States knowing who I am now," Oudin said. "I enjoyed it, but I don't think that affected my tennis game tonight at all. Because when I get on the court, I don't think about anything but the ball and where I'm playing and myself, how I'm going to play."

The girl believes, still. However you slice it, that's a win.
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