by Steve Flink
The first time I watched Melanie Oudin play her impressive brand of tennis, the young American toppled 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon last July to reach the round of 16. Later in the summer, I saw her string of come from behind triumphs over Russians Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova at the U.S. Open. Those stirring victories carried Oudin into her first quarterfinal at a major, and despite a straight set defeat against Caroline Wozniacki under the lights in New York, I remained highly encouraged about how far she had come, and where she seemed to be going.
And yet, Oudin fell into a predicament that is not uncommon for those who have made swift progress in the upper levels of the game. She became an easy target for opponents looking to beat a player with a growing reputation who has not yet explored the boundaries of her talent. As she headed into the opening round of the Fed Cup last weekend as a member of the American contingent that took on France, Oudin had lost six of the seven matches she had played since her joyous run in New York. Although she had not played much in that span, the fact remained that Oudin struggled to play with the controlled aggression she had displayed so convincingly at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2009. That must have been frustrating for this 18-year-old with the large heart and facile mind.
But, as if by design, Oudin stepped out onto the indoor clay at Lievin, France and recorded a pair of crucial singles triumphs as the Americans defeated France 4-1 to move into the Fed Cup semifinals. For Oudin, the timing of these wins could have been no better. On a surface she has not yet mastered, performing in front of crowds pulling unashamedly for her adversaries, in a situation where she could not really afford to fail, Oudin came through in a big way. That was an important step for her in the right direction, a reaffirmation of her inner conviction, a sign that she will soon be right back where she wants to be as a player making the most of herself and her potential.
To be fair, Oudin was boosted considerably in France by the exploits of one Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Mattek-Sands opened the proceedings against the gifted yet overwhelmed Alize Cornet. Cornet is currently stationed at No. 65 in the world, but the 20-year-old from Nice is destined for a place among the top 30 in the not too distant future. Both Mattek-Sands and Cornet realized how critical their contest would be in a best of five match series between nations, and the first set of their meeting was fought hard on both sides of the net.
Mattek-Sands was more poised at the outset, and she raced to a 2-0, 15-40 lead in the first set with superior ball control and greater accuracy in the baseline exchanges. Cornet cast aside some of her inhibition in the third game, saving three break points, holding on with an ace. She climbed back to 2-2, held at love for 3-2, broke at love for 4-2, and then held again for 5-2. Mattek-Sands was in peril in the following game. Serving at 2-5, she double faulted to fall behind 0-40, triple set point, but somehow she escaped and held on. Cornet served for the set at 5-3, reached 30-30, only to double fault feebly into the net. Mattek-Sands broke back for 4-5, but was two points away from losing the set again in the tenth game. At 4-5, 30-30, she swung her serve wide with slice to Cornet’s forehand to open up the court for an angled forehand drive volley winner. At game point, she laced a backhand down the line for a winner. It was 5-5.
The two players traded service breaks in the next two games to set up a tie-break, and here Mattek-Sands took charge ably. A backhand drop shot winner gave her a quick mini-break lead at 1-0. A cleanly struck overhead winner made it 3-0 for the American. Cornet managed to sweep the next five points and was serving at 5-3. Mattek-Sands came in behind a solid backhand approach, and provoked an errant passing shot from Cornet. A forehand winner from Mattek-Sands took her back to 5-5, and then she advanced to set point, using a backhand drop shot to draw Cornet forward, then driving a forehand pass into a clear open space.
Now Mattek-Sands had set point at 6-5, but her forehand return travelled long. Cornet then took the next point with a service winner down the T, taking a 7-6 lead. Mattek-Sands was unimpressed with her adversary’s resurgence. The American threw in another backhand drop shot that set up a backhand passing shot winner down the line for 7-7. Cornet missed off the forehand, and that made it 8-7 for Mattek-Sands. The Frenchwoman had reached her emotional limit. She pulled a routine crosscourt forehand wide, and the set belonged to Mattek-Sands.
The second set went almost entirely on serve, but Mattek-Sands had the advantage of serving first. With an increasingly apprehensive Cornet serving at 5-6, the Frenchwoman trailed 0-40. She fought off two match points, but on the third Mattek-Sands got the job done by chipping a forehand purposefully short, forcing Cornet to dig up the low ball. Cornet was not up to that task, netting that ball under duress. Mattek-Sands had lifted the Americans into a 1-0 lead after her gutsy 7-6 (7), 7-5 victory. She had set the stage for Oudin, who came out to face Pauline Parmentier in the second singles match.
Clearly, Mattek-Sands had done her countrywoman a favor by carving out a win, but Oudin did not want to waste that opening. The American went right to work, breaking for 3-2 by accelerating the pace of her shots and catching her opponent off guard. At 5-4, Oudin served for the set, but she was down 0-30. She took control of the next two points to get back to 30-30. At 30-30, she sliced an excellent backhand approach deep down the middle and Parmentier could not make the passing shot. On set point, Oudin changed pace adroitly, releasing another clever backhand slice that provoked a mistake from Parmentier. Oudin had the set, 6-4.
There was more hard work ahead. Oudin was serving at 2-3 in the second set when she was stretched to deuce five times. She fought off two break points in that game, saving the second with a crackling forehand that Parmentier could not answer. Oudin made it to 3-3, but Parmentier was fighting hard. She held easily for 4-3, and then had a break point for 5-3. Once more, Oudin stepped up, cracking another sizzling forehand that was tantamount to a winner. Oudin held on for 4-4, and did not look back. Dominating rally after rally with her flat forehand, she broke for 5-4 in a long game after Parmentier led 40-0. Serving for the match in the tenth game, Oudin wasted one match point with an unprovoked mistake off the backhand, then saved a break point. Oudin moved back to match point for the second time, and she sealed the triumph deservedly by scores of 6-4, 6-4.
The following day, Oudin played the opening match against Julie Coin, who was substituting for Cornet. French captain Nicolas Escude understandably did not want to use Cornet again after her disappointing loss against Mattek-Sands. In any case, Oudin recognized that Coin was not to be taken lightly. The 27-year-old is ranked No. 76 in the world. Moreover, she had upset French Open champion Ana Ivanovic at the 2008 U.S. Open. Coin is a sporadically dangerous ball striker, and Oudin had to be on guard as she confronted an experienced adversary.
The first set was pivotal. Oudin was down 0-2, 15-40, having just double faulted. She boldly worked her way out of that corner and held on for 1-2, but Coin released three aces on her way to 3-1. Another ace down the T lifted Coin to 4-2. Oudin easily broke back for 4-4, held for 5-4, and had a set point in the tenth game. Coin stifled the American there with a well directed body serve, and soon was level at 5-5. Oudin saved two break points and held for 6-5, Coin served two more aces en route to 6-6, and it all came down to a tie-break.
Oudin double faulted at 2-2 in that sequence, but she was fortunate on the following point. With a chance to reach 4-2 and perhaps take command, Coin rolled an inside out forehand wide with Oudin moving in the opposite direction. Oudin was on a roll. She collected five straight points to take the tie-break 7-3, ending that stretch emphatically with a backhand winner followed by two more winners off the forehand flank. Oudin gradually pulled away in the second set, getting the crucial break for 3-2, and making that count. At 5-4, serving for the match, knowing a hold here would lift her nation into the semifinal round of the 2010 Fed Cup World Group, Oudin lost the first point but then closed it out with a flourish, driving three more of her patented forehands for winners while winning four points in a row. Match to Oudin, 6-4, 6-4.
It must be said that Oudin and her countrywomen would have had a tougher time prevailing if some of the leading French players had been available. Marion Bartoli (No. 13 in the world) Aravane Rezai (No. 21), and Virginie Razzano (No. 24), did not play. On the other hand, neither world No. 1 Serena Williams nor her sister Venus (No. 5) made it to Lievin either. That is simply the way it is these days with Fed Cup and Davis Cup. And it is not all the fault of the players. Having such a significant Fed Cup contest less than a week after the end of the Australian Open makes no sense at all.
Let’s leave that issue aside. The bottom line is that Melanie Oudin showed up, played well, picked up some confidence, and reminded many of us why we were so delighted when we watched her play with such verve at the last two majors of 2009. Oudin just might be reigniting herself and her game at the best possible time. At the moment, she is ranked No. 53 in the world, but the feeling grows that she is going to make a substantial move forward over the next nine months.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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