Try and quickly think of any teenager who reached the quarters of Grand Slam at the age of 17 and then without being seriously injured, fell out of the top 350 three years later. It’s hard to find a few, if any.
There are examples of excellent players who made it as teens and then experienced emotional meltdowns, such as former No. 7 Nicole Vaidisova who reached two Slam semis and retired prematurely at the age of 20 in 2010 because she had lost interest in the game. Jennifer Capriati who reached the 1991 US Open semis at the age of 16 and then left the game for the better part of four years after growing sick of it before she staged a fantastic comeback.
But that is not the case of American Melanie Oudin, who after having much of the U.S. tennis fan base “believing” in her after her extraordinary run to the 2009 US Open semis, completely lost her way. Oh it took a bit of time for it to happen, as it's often forgotten that after her US Open run (and don’t forget that she also reached the fourth round of 2009 Wimbledon), that she did reach the semis of the 2010 Paris Indoors and reached four other WTA quarters at Memphis, PonteVedra Beach, Charleston and Québec City that season. But even though she says that her 2010 was pretty good, it was not by the standards that she set in 2009, as she also fell in the first round of 12 different tournaments.
Her 2011 season was nothing short of a disaster - she suffered 13 first round losses, and lost in the second round six times. She ended the year with a 10-33 record in singles. She fell to No. 164 in the world from a career high No. 31in April, 2010. She could not understand while all the balls that were going in during practice were flying long, or why she suddenly forgot her game plans once she got on court.
Her only reason to smile was when she won her first Grand Slam title in mixed doubles at the US Open with Jack Sock.
A short while later, she split with her longtime private coach Brian DeVilliers and and went to work with USTA Player Development. The good results did not come quickly. She travelled with former US Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson and said she was willing to go back to the Challenger level. She won only one of four matches to close out the year.
She moved her base from Georgia to New York so she could also work with USTA Player Development chief Patrick McEnroe and his crew at the USTA Training Center – East at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.(home of the US Open). There, she’d have the attention of slew of coaches and trainers and could also trade strokes with two other hard workers, Christina McHale and Varvara Lepchenko.
She cleaned up her strokes. She stopped trying to play Big Babe tennis and went back to her base, which was to be fast, relentless counterpuncher . That’s what lead the 5-foot-6 Oudin to upset three notable Russians in row – Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova – in New York, not the over hyped first strike tennis that taller and stronger players such as Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are capable of.
But two other things also had to improve: her condtioning, which was said to be lacking, because there is no way to be a successful counterpuncher if you are tiring early in third sets. Second, and perhaps most importantly, she began to personally mature and get a grip on what was making her so nervous in matches. Admittedly, she was just not equipped to handle the so-called expectations, most of which, by the way, were her own.
Now, 20, Oudin had to realize that no serious tennis analyst ever said that she was going to race up the charts to No. 1 based on two very good, but not great runs at majors. She had to get real, as well as tenacious once again.
Even though she suffered five first round losses to start 2012, USTA Player Development was seeing progress, as well as commitment. She qualified for the WTA tournament in Charleston, scoring her first two wins of the year. She won a match at the Dothan Challenger and then took a big step, winning five straight contests, including a win over her competent countrywoman, Irina Falconi in the final of the Boyd Tinsley Challenger.
“Now I feel I’m in a good place now... it’s definitely going really well now,” she told reporters after the win. Hopefully I just keep doing what I’m doing and everything will start to fall into place. I’ll start to be able to get into the bigger tournaments again and then after be able to play the Slams again and work my way up again.
Still even with the title, Oudin went into the USTA Challenger at Indian Harbour, Florida. ranked No. 370. But she was ahead in the points race to secure the USTA Roland Garros wild card, which quickly met her Slam dream.
She knocked off one of her closest competitors, Julia Cohen in the first round but the next day after her night match victory, Chi Chi Scholl shocked her with a 6-0,6-2 victory.
Clearly there is still work to do.
If there is one thing about Oudin though that has been clear since she magic-markered “Believe” on her tennies in 2009, is that she enjoys a goodfight.
She in one now for her career, and at least in the last month, it appears that she will win it.“She's coming around,” McEnroe said. And she will be back.”
Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”