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Steve Flink: Oudin is for Real

6/27/2009 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Every once in a while, often when you least expect it, a young player steps out of relative obscurity and grabs hold of your imagination. At times like that, you consider yourself fortunate to be in the right place at precisely the right time. And so it was for me at Wimbledon earlier today.

The sun was shining brightly on this final day of the first week at the world’s premier tennis tournament. It was noon. Play did not start on the show courts until 1PM. So I wandered over to Court 3, where there is a brand new press section. Jelena Jankovic was opening on that stage, and I wanted to see if she was ready to make a respectable run at this major after a highly disappointing 2009 campaign. Here was the woman who finished 2008 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, but since reaching the final of the 2008 United States Open, she had lost in the round of 16 at both the Australian and French Opens.

I thought Jankovic---- despite her less than stellar record on grass courts-- would surely improve on those mediocre showings at the first two Grand Slam events of 2009. But I had not yet seen Melanie Oudin. I had never watched this 17-year-old from Georgia perform on a tennis court. So I incorrectly assumed that she would lose to her wily adversary. Oudin was, after all, a qualifier ranked No. 124 in the world. She was young and unseasoned, up against one of the cagiest players in the business, out in the sunshine at her first Wimbledon, and seemingly out of her league.

But as I watched that opening set between Oudin and Jankovic unfold, I quickly recognized that she can really play this game. She can drive her two-handed backhand flat with outstanding depth. She is not afraid to step around and unleash the inside-out forehand, playing that shot with the kind of sidespin that makes it doubly effective on the grass. She moves well, opens up the court beautifully, and her touch is magnificent. Time and again in this contest against the No. 6 seed from Serbia, Oudin displayed fine court sense and an exquisite touch with the backhand drop shot. She displayed explosiveness off both sides, and a willingness to be aggressive without becoming reckless.

Oudin fought long and hard in an attempt to win the first set. At 3-5, she was down set point and out of position when Jankovic went for her trademark two-hander down the line. The opening was there for a winner but Jankovic’s contact point was a shade too high and she drove the ball long. Oudin moved ahead 6-5 and had a set point herself, but she was unable to convert. On they moved to a tie-break. Three times Oudin reached set point but Jankovic was tenacious and unwavering on defense and Oudin understandably overanxious as she stood so close to winning that set.

Jankovic escaped, and then called for the trainer and tournament doctors. She felt weak, said she had “women problems”, and claimed she had felt dizzy on the court. But her fundamental problem was her opponent. Oudin was not unduly intimidated by her rival, and she was undismayed by the frustrating loss of the first set. The second set was hard fought on both sides of the net, but the way I saw it, one point decided the outcome and demonstrated that Oudin can compete with ease and a certain grace under pressure.

The situation was as follows. Oudin was serving at 4-5, 15-30, two points away from a straight set departure. Jankovic was probing, moving Oudin from side to side, keeping the ball deep, looking for the chance to force her inexperienced adversary into a nervous error. Jankovic drove a two-hander reasonably deep, and seemed at least in a neutral position in that rally. But Oudin stepped up here in the biggest possible way. She released the sweetest of backhand drop shots, sending the ball down the line. The ball died on the grass. Jankovic had no play. And that point essentially settled the entire battle. Oudin gamely held for 5-5, and closed out the match by winning nine of the last eleven games, prevailing 6-7, 7-5, 6-2 with immense poise and perspicacity.

It’s remarkable to reflect on what Oudin has done at this tournament. In the first round of the qualifying event, she was almost ousted. Facing Sophie Ferguson, she came through only narrowly, prevailing 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. To have been that close to bowing out in the qualifying and to now be in the round of 16 in the main draw is no small feat. Please understand: I am not saying she will last much longer in this tournament. She confronts a tough match player in her next match, taking on No. 11 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Should she manage to emerge with a victory in that contest, she would almost surely meet Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, and her journey would inevitably end right then and there.

But as I look at the long run, I believe Oudin will establish herself by 2011 as a front line player who will be ranked among the top ten in the world. She could well eventually capture a major title. American tennis followers should be buoyed by her showing here. I loved the attitude she conveyed out on Court 3 against Jankovic. Jankovic’s supporters at courtside were constantly yelling, “Bravo” after every big point the Serbian won, even when Oudin was making mistakes. It could have been unnerving for a player like Oudin who had never been in a situation like this before.

And yet, she handled it as if it was entirely familiar territory. She simply urged herself on, exclaiming, “Come On” after hitting winners, calling to mind Lleyton Hewitt with her intensity and passion. Her attitude was admirable in every respect. Her composure was nothing short of astounding under the circumstances. Jankovic gave her every opportunity to lose the match in straight sets, and still Oudin came away with a three set triumph.

I have no doubt there will be some growing pains for Oudin across the next couple of years. But I am equally certain that an authentic American champion is in the making. Her time will come. I am delighted I was there to see Melanie Oudin play today as she carved out her first big win over a big name player at a Grand Slam event. She has her share of wrinkles to iron out in her game---- her shot selection can be immature at times, her ground game could be more solid and perhaps less flashy--- but surely Oudin will keep making strides in the years ahead as she makes her presence known in the upper echelons of the game she plays so well.

Melanie Oudin is for real.

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