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Monday, June 18, 2012
Don't count Melanie Oudin out yet


Melanie Oudin is probably not going to win Wimbledon. Let's get that right out of the way for the benefit of everyone, including the pixie-like 20-year-old who knows all about causing a sensation -- and also about paying the price for the privilege.

In 2009, the native of Marietta, Ga., held the hearts of her fellow Americans in her hands as she upset four consecutive Russians, including an Olympic singles gold medal winner (Elena Dementieva) and Grand Slam champion and current No. 1 Maria Sharapova, on an enchanted march to the quarterfinals. She ran out of Russians, though, and lost to another woman destined to become No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki.

The blonde, blue-eyed, 5-foot-6 Oudin was a supernova, but she was sucked into the black hole of fame almost as quickly as she arrived at it. Ranked No. 70 at that U.S. Open that year, Oudin slumped after her star turn, and by the start of the Charlottesville, Va., ITF event this spring, she was down to No. 370. That's where Oudin took her first halting steps on a comeback that had her playing Jelena Jankovic -- another former No. 1 -- for the title in Birmingham, England. Oudin won, 6-4, 6-2.

Some gung-ho tennis fans will scoff at this news and ask, "So what? Oudin is 5-foot-6, and her serve is a puffball. She was just a flash in the pan and won't ever duplicate what she did in 2009."

So what? The more compelling reality is that Oudin has fought a long, protracted battle with doubt, frustration and the demands of maturity, and she finally appears to be getting the upper hand. If her story has no gravitational pull for you, your heart is just a pump sending blood to your extremities.

According to Oudin, she hit her low point just after Wimbledon last year. She still had a respectable ranking at No. 87, but she struggled through Europe for two months and got just one game off Ana Ivanovic in a first-round loss at the All England Club. She realized she needed a break and took a few weeks off. When she came back, she lost her first match in five consecutive events.

"I was really ready to come back and do better," she told me when I visited with her recently. "But it didn't work. That was hard. I came back and I was just so tight again."

Notice her use of the words "tight" and "again." Say what you will about her game, her biggest and most conspicuous problem has been fear. Tightness. The inability to swing freely, easily and with confidence. Most tennis players have been there, and they can tell you it's a bad place to visit, especially for an extended period.

The one good thing that came out of that skid was that she finally split with the coach she has had since she was 9, Brian de Villiers. He was the figure in the regrettably public, unpleasant divorce of Oudin's parents. You want to play Sigmund Freud, feel free.

Oudin eventually made her way to the USTA development program and, after an unsatisfying stint at the Boca Raton, Fla., training center, she moved to New York to work under Patrick McEnroe's staff. The consensus was that Oudin was out of shape.

"I've always loved playing tennis, win or lose," she told me. "But losing took my confidence. Pretty much all of it. And then I just wasn't so excited to go and do tennis, do fitness, all the things you need."

By spring, her fitness was much improved, and she was cracking her forehand again. She adjusted to life in Pound Ridge, New York. In late April, she earned a wild card into the French Open (the U.S. and France have a reciprocity agreement) with her showing in two ITF events, and she's been showing flashes of her best game ever since. She's won some very close matches since, including a pair of three-setters that carried her to the Birmingham final. Those were critical, confidence-boosting wins, finishing a six-match run that started in qualifying.

"I feel my confidence building with each one (match)," Oudin told WTA publicists in Birmingham. "I've always loved playing on grass. I think my forehand is one of my biggest weapons, and since I hit it so flat it goes through the court a lot on grass. Then I can slice my backhand and hit drop shots, too, so I've always thought grass suits my game really well. I feel like I'm showing top-50 tennis again. I hope to get back up there."

Nobody is going to mistake this run for the one Oudin put together in 2009, and she's only beaten two Russians (Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, neither of whom has ever been mistaken for Dementieva or Sharapova). Somehow, I get the feeling none of that matters to Oudin.