Commentary

The dark days of Melanie Oudin

Updated: May 27, 2012, 4:40 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The sports industrial complex is a ruthless machine, fueled by the Promethean concepts of legacies and television ratings and rivalries, popularity and success. It is, when taken from a particular point of view, nothing more than another product for profit, and against this reality of business, the 20-second timeout for the heartwarming human interest stories while the big boys settle in to take the stage can sound to the cynical ear more than a bit patronizing. Cash rules, and so, too, does winning.

Such attitudes, of course, are both common and shortsighted, for the business of sport and the game itself are two entirely different entities. Although sport has been devoured whole by the combination of statistics, reduced to the binaries of WAR, OPS, QBR, plus-minus, and the fantasy of numbers as well as being rendered disposable by the breakneck speed of the 24/7 information culture -- "that was so 26 seconds ago" -- Melanie Oudin is the game, its beating heart.

[+] EnlargeOudin
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty ImagesPerhaps a bust label is pretty harsh, but Melanie Oudin's tennis career has seen better days.

Oudin's 6-3, 6-3 first-round win at Roland Garros on Sunday over Sweden's Johanna Larsson is a reminder of why we watch. It seems that more than ever we need to be reminded that the game, when stripped of its billions and sponsors and cheers and analysis, is the same as it ever was: player against opponent, against themselves, against the insecurities and limitations they see in the mirror, against the demons that live in their brains. It is first the simple, basic struggle of trying to play the notes in their heads, and second, for those notes to rise louder and ring truer than those of everyone else.

Oudin is the game's boom, simultaneously elevated and haunted by her sudden 2009 quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old, where she beat Maria Sharapova, and its bust, the spiral from being ranked 31st in the world to, yes, 370th. She indirectly represents the victims of the game's wake, the ones built up and toasted when they are producing, only to be forgotten and fungible when the score or their abilities or their bodies or the fates betray them. She was the anointed and did not live up to the moment, and the conversation quickly moved on to "the next big thing," whether it is Jamie Hampton, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys or Christina McHale.

The complex moved on, and people focused their attention elsewhere, but Oudin was still there, a person living inside the narrative, living inside her head while still not even old enough to drink legally. She is a 20-year-old in her second act, who has read the stories and saw the rankings, one who basked in the sunburst of the huge forehand only to be darkened when the next one sailed. She is the one who had to navigate the truth of what falling so far meant. It meant having to live two lives, one of a rising star who beat top-30 players Jelena Jankovic, Sharapova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Julia Goerges and Nadia Petrova, and another of losing enough that her coach once told her that now everyone expected to beat her.

Oudin is the difference between analyzing sport and playing it. She's the one on the practice court, hitting shot after shot, training and fighting to reach the proper mental space, the one who has the weapon of a killer forehand, only to lose. And lose. And lose. At one point last year, Oudin played 14 matches and lost 13 of them. The only match she won was in Dallas -- and that was when Alla Kudryavtseva retired following the first game of the second set after losing a tight tiebreaker. Not counting a walkover in an Eastbourne qualifier against Shuai Zhang, and a walkover against Polona Hercog, Oudin hadn't won clean back-to-back matches since 2010 in Phoenix, when she beat Jamie Hampton and Anna Tatishvili before losing to Varvara Lepchenko in the final.

"Well, even the past like year and a half, I mean, I never really -- of course I was a little bit down on myself -- but I never was like to the point where I was like, you know, giving up or anything like that," Oudin said Sunday. "I really, really tried to stay positive throughout the whole time. I thought I did a good job of that. I think definitely the worst part of it is over, of my slump." Oudin is finding her way back into the light. She won her first French Open match, and had lost five straight consecutive Grand Slam matches before beating Larsson. Her next match is against Italy's Sara Errani, a champion doubles specialist but at No. 24 a solid singles player. The return began in Charlottesville, where she won her first title in three years. There is hard work and grinding and luck and circumstance, but eventually the currency in which athletes traffic is winning, and Oudin has won nearly as many matches this year (six) as she won in all of 2011 (eight). Her ranking is 266th, which means until victory again becomes commonplace she will live in the shadow of the floodlights and center court. Nevertheless, for anyone who cares about true competition -- against oneself, against a devastating year of losing and against the challenges of a forthcoming second act that has begun before her 21st birthday -- Oudin is one to watch.