NEW YORK – This little kid is still running around a meadow in Flushing making her elders look bad. Isn’t anybody going to discipline Melanie Oudin, teach her some manners, spank her with a tennis racket?
Hasn’t happened yet. And maybe it won’t. As the female field in the US Open slims to the last eight, the Menacing Maid from Marietta (Georgia) is right up there – “I can compete with these girls” – daring the high and mighty to discipline her.
From her perch in the quarter-finals, Melanie, the new kid on that block, drips with confidence and loves her role as the tournament’s mischief-maker. After all she lost in the first round a year ago, and arrived as a 17-year-old commoner with a No. 70 ranking.
But that was before a country called Russia ganged up on her. Could she be disrespectful to an entire nation? You bet. It started unremarkably as she beat No. 36 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets. But then the iron lined up against her, and Melanie bent them out of shape in three sets: No. 4 Elena Dementieva, No. 29 Maria Sharapova and, today, No. 13 Nadia Petrova,
By this time we were almost getting used to her suspenseful dramas, accompanied by the roars, screams and heated applause of about 22,000 folks in Ashe Stadium – a chorus delighted by Melanie’s uninhibited tweaking of her so-called superiors.
In beating the powerful Petrova, 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, she displayed the Oudin formula once again: fall way behind, and then charge to the wire. Remember the race horse, Silky Sullivan, who used to do that?
When this 17-year-old, 5-foot-5 filly lost the first set she had Dementieva, Sharapova and Petrova right where she wanted them.
Brian de Villiers, her coach for eight years at Atlanta’s Racquet Club of the South, explains, “Her passion to win takes over. Sure, she’s shorter than anybody else, but she understands the game so well, she out-thinks the opponent.”
Well things didn’t look too great when she was down a set, and a break (4-3, 40-15) in the second. Another Petrova point, and it was probably all over.
However, Melanie lashed out with one of her huge forehands to begin reversing the Russian trend. Into the tie-breaker they moved and the kid won the first five points. Petrova went shaky while Oudin banged away with increasing confidence, double-barrelled backhands along with one-handed slices and killer forehands down the line. Her footwork is exemplary.
Crucial was the first game of the third set, a desperate all-out skirmish of five deuces that lasted 11 minutes as the tall Russian rescued six break points. But the seventh was a beauty, Melanie’s lob that kissed the baseline. Petrova was still fighting, but persistent Oudin kept nailing winners, got to 5-2, and closed with another forehand bomb.
Petrova sighs, “Winning that eighth game of the second when I was up 4-3, 40-15 gave Melanie a second breath. She realized she was back in the game, and after winning previous matches in the same way probably thought, ‘I can do it again.’
“She’s done well…a lot of pressure…a big stadium….
“When you do it for the first time you feel excited. Everything is so new…you have nothing to lose, and you go and you do it.”
So Oudin did. She laughs, “I don’t actually mean to lose the first set. I start slowly, a little nervous. I need some time to figure out the situation. I forgot about the first set (losing six straight games), and just started out like it was a new match.
“When I had my first match point, it was like when I won the second set. Everyone stood up. A standing ovation. I mean it’s crazy how many people are cheering for me, supporting me. It’s been good” – this sudden celebrity – “It’s been good, different, nice to have people cheering for me.”
A week ago she was a nobody, but all that has changed. A lovely blonde who speaks well, thoughtfully, she seems level-headed, able to handle it. “This is what I’ve wanted forever, and I’m finally achieving my goal.”
Her coach, De Villiers, says he never hears from her parents, quite unusual in kids tennis. “Five years ago I brought my players to the Open to see it. They had a nice time, but Melanie was different. She watched matches closely, learned a lot. She said, ‘This is what I want – to come back and win here.’ “
She got here, and abruptly became a pain in the class of Russian grown-ups. “There’s a lot more to improve,” says the coach. “The serve (never as high as 100 MPH), and other things. But she’s always been clear about what she wants: ‘Dream big.’ That’s what I tell all the kids, but Melanie has taken it to heart. She wants it all.”
But she can’t have any more Russians. Melanie ran out of them when 2004 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova stumbled over a 19-year-old Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, 2-6, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-3). Might Melanie be the bane of the Dane? We’ll find out Wednesday.
A Swiss guy named Roger Federer is impressed by Oudin. “It was exciting, very much needed on the women’s side. Fighting spirit, solid off the baseline, having some options in her game. You don’t see it so often, unfortunately.”
The last American 17-year-old to make the quarters was Sister Serena 10 years ago, prior to her winning her first title. Could Melanie bump into Serena two rounds hence with another championship at stake?
That’s really dreaming big.