America's Sweetheart Is Back: Melanie Oudin Easily Wins First Match at U.S. Open

Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010  |  Updated 2:35 PM EDT
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Melanie Oudin of the United States hits balls into the crowd after her win over Olga Savchuk of Ukraine during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, Monday, Aug. 30, 2010. Oudin won 6-3, 6-0.

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A year after Melanie Oudin's surprising run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals captivated fans, there's plenty about her that's the same.

She's still a bubbly teen from Marietta, Ga., prone to sprinkling sentences with the word "like," as in, "I wasn't, like, freaking out," which is how she described her reaction to starting the 2010 U.S. Open with Monday's first match in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She still pumps a clenched fist and screams, "Come on!" after winning points, whether it's thanks to her own terrific shot or an opponent's error. She still scurries her 5-foot-6 frame around the court with abandon in brightly colored sneakers that carry an inspirational word written on the side, although her current ones read, "Courage," instead of 2009's motto, "Believe."

The primary change for the Oudin who beat 143rd-ranked qualifier Olga Savchuk of Ukraine 6-3, 6-0 Monday — reeling off 20 consecutive points in one stretch, and the last nine games — is now she is someone who people figure will win such matches.

"It's a lot different this year, especially going into, like, Grand Slams," Oudin said. "Last year, no one expected anything from me, and this year there are pretty high expectations for me."

When Oudin — it's pronounced oo-DAN — arrived at Flushing Meadows in 2009, she was 17, ranked 70th, never had won a U.S. Open match and was relatively anonymous. No one figured she'd go as far as she did; her hotel reservation in New York wasn't for long enough, so Oudin needed to switch places.

She upset four opponents in a row, including three-time major champion Maria Sharapova and 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, to become the tournament's youngest quarterfinalist since Serena Williams in 1999.

Along the way, Oudin's on-court spirit and off-court personality earned her plenty of adoration and attention — "a bit of a zoo," is the way her coach, Brian de Villiers, described it.

"Everyone has one Cinderella story, and mine was last year. Now it's like everyone just expects me to do that because I did it last year," Oudin said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to happen."

Indeed, there have been some rough patches. She went 1-3 at this year's first three Grand Slam tournaments, including first-round losses at the Australian Open and French Open. She entered Monday with a 17-20 record in 2010, a four-match losing streak, and only four victories in her previous 17 matches.

The worst part? The sorts of things she sometimes has heard from spectators.

Recounted Oudin: "You hear them say stuff, and it's not like, 'All right!' (or) like, 'Come on! You're so close!' (or) like, 'You can do it!'"

She said those phrases with encouragement in her voice. Then, to illustrate the point, Oudin scrunched up her face and drenched her voice with disappointment.

"It's more like, 'Melanie, come on! What are you doing?' I hear that, like, kind of a lot," she said. "It's just really different from, like, last year, when everyone was so pumped for me. ... I'm, like, 'I'm trying as hard as I can, you know?' It's not going to happen all the time. Like, you never play your best tennis all the time."

Against Savchuk, Oudin felt some jitters early as she returned to the scene of her breakthrough. Oudin even said her stomach felt queasy. But after erasing two break points while serving at 3-all, she didn't lose a game the rest of the way and took 28 of the final 30 points.

"I knew she was going to be nervous at the start because of a lot of expectations from the fans," Savchuk said. "But in the second set, she played very confident, very aggressive. I didn't really have a chance."

Oudin is currently ranked 43rd, down from a career-best 31st in April, but consider: She was 177th at the end of 2008. She and de Villiers say Oudin's serve is much improved from 12 months ago.

"The main thing I'm trying to get into her is to play for herself and not for what other people think or say," de Villiers said. "I still don't like her reading the press or blogs or any of that. People can be brutal out there."

When Oudin left the locker room after Monday's victory, she was greeted by a hug and words of encouragement from her grandmother, who used to take a 7-year-old Melanie and twin sister Katherine — now a freshman at Furman — to hit tennis balls out of a bucket.

Oudin's mother, Leslie, was waiting in the hallway, too, right in the spot she stood a year ago to greet her daughter after each stunning victory.

"She's been working hard and has had a lot of pressure on her. I'm just so pleased she started off on the right foot. She needed this. She really needed it. Just to feel good, just to feel good about herself," Mom said. "To me, she's not reached her peak, and she's just got to be patient.

"And so does everybody else."

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