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The recent runs by 19-year-old Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are reminiscent of another American teenager who found stardom at the U.S. Open. Two years ago, in the summer of 2009, Melanie Oudin had two phenomenal tournaments while the whole world was watching. A fourth-round showing at Wimbledon and a dream run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals vaulted the All-American teenager, then 17, from obscurity to celebrity. The petite player from Marietta, Ga., was everywhere: She opened the NASDAQ, was booked on "Good Morning America," shot the breeze with Ellen DeGeneres and starred in American Express ads.
Oudin's Grand Slam success of 2009 may have been her big break, and was interpreted by many fans as the start of a run to the highest echelon of the game. Instead, two years later, her ranking is No. 113 -- down from a high of No. 31. This season she has won just nine main-draw matches in 35 attempts. Her four first-round losses at Slams included three sets surrendered at love. And it was Oudin's loss back in April that sent the U.S. out of Fed Cup world group play for the first time in history. She recently claimed she hasn't had "luck on her side lately," but perhaps that's because she drained her luck supply long ago.
Could that storybook summer, the one during which Oudin beat then-No. 6 Jelena Jankovic, No. 4 Elena Dementieva and former No. 1 Maria Sharapova, have possibly been a fluke? The answer is yes. But instead of unfairly considering Oudin a failure and a disappointment for middling results since, fans should be grateful for that one-time boost she gave American tennis.
During Oudin's unlikely breakthrough, the pint-sized powerhouse with the bouncing blond ponytail provided tennis viewers with the compelling underdog storyline they crave. Anxious to identify the new face of women's tennis, Americans latched onto Oudin as if she were the latest teen superstar, the next Chris Evert or Jennifer Capriati. At the time, ESPN's Michelle Beadle put it this way: "She's like Reese Witherspoon playing this role in a movie. She looks like a girl whose summer job is to sell clothes at Abercrombie."
Oudin looked the part, all right, and played it well, too. Her guts and gumption, as she knocked off seeded Russian after seeded Russian, endeared her to the millions of U.S. Open viewers who saw her sob on court after each improbable victory. But Oudin didn't have the game to join the A-list. A muscular 5-foot-6, Oudin is quick on her feet, but lacks the tools needed to consistently compete with booming groundstrokes like those that Serena Williams, Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka possess. While it's not impossible for smaller players to generate big pace (think Justine Henin and Li Na), Oudin just doesn't have the talent to make up for her smaller stature.
"She's a short girl who moves very well," Jankovic said. "[But] she cannot hurt you with anything." Oudin's tour opponents were quick to discover that she lacks a killer serve or a blazing backhand. In the absence of any detectable weapon, Oudin's intimidation factor was short-lived.
The pressure was on Oudin after the 2009 Open, where she became the youngest American to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Serena Williams in 1999. But time has significantly dimmed the glare of the spotlight. If Oudin hopes to return to the top 100, now would be a good time for her to tweak her training program, or even part ways with her longtime coach, Brian de Villiers. "It's all on me," Oudin has said of her struggles. But although she's been reluctant to make big changes, there would be no shame in shaking up a losing game. Her trademark grit can take her only so far.
In Stephens and McHale, American tennis fans have legitimate prospects to be excited about. Though neither player is much bigger than Oudin, both have weapons and a much bigger game. But we shouldn't consider Oudin's story a disappointing one just because she hasn't progressed since that magical run. Let's look back at the Oudin tapes fondly, remembering the excitement that was generated by a charismatic kid playing out of her mind on the sport's biggest stage. The Georgia teen who famously emblazoned her adidas sneakers with the word "Believe" and then took down a slew of the world's best tennis players will always have the memories of that remarkable summer. As fans, we should be satisfied with that, too.