NEW YORK -- Date a girl long enough and -- whether it's playing board games, watching Jeopardy! or even playing a friendly game of tennis -- the urge to compete will intrude. When it does, every guy ends up thinking the same thing: Do I let her win?
Some say a gentleman would -- because, let's face it, most guys assume they're better -- but 15-year-old Austin Smith is rarely in a conciliatory mood when trading strokes with his 17-year-old girlfriend, Melanie Oudin. As her designated practice partner, going easy on her isn't in the job description. What's more, it's not his nature. "If I can win, I'm winning," he said.
Of course, that's a big "if," as Oudin isn't exactly one to give an inch. The 5-foot-6 Marietta, Ga., native has showed the tennis world just how unrelenting she can be. She reinforced the point on Monday with her 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 knockout of 13th-seeded Nadia Petrova of Russia. That made her the youngest American woman to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals since Serena Williams did it on her way to winning the championship at age 17 in 1999. On Wednesday, the 70th-ranked Oudin will face another teen sensation, 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, in her first night match here.
Oudin's longtime coach, Brian de Villiers, considers himself lucky to work with a player so motivated. "Firing her up has never been an issue I've had to work with," he said. "That's one of her strengths."
Another is an ability to dial up the intensity under pressure, which she demonstrated yet again on Monday. After losing the first set and going down 4-3 in the second, she staved off two game points and eventually broke Petrova. Oudin would rally to win in three sets, just as she did in second- and third-round victories against No. 4 Elena Dementieva and No. 29 Maria Sharapova, respectively.
"I do well with forgetting about the first [set] and starting over like it's a totally new match," Oudin said after the Petrova victory. "I believe in myself so much after I win the second. I have the momentum going, and I know I can win."
Where does a woman so young get such unwavering self-belief? Well, Smith for starters. It was his idea for her to affix the very word BELIEVE to the heels of her electric pink and yellow tennis shoes. But she's also been partly motivated by her semifinal loss in last year's U.S. Open junior championships, where she came into the draw as the top seed. The defeat came against Venezuela's Gabriela Paz, whom Oudin had beaten four times previously.
Afterward Oudin entered the main draw as a wild card and lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) to unseeded Jessica Moore of Australia. Oudin was determined to avoid a repeat performance this year. "I'm just going to keep playing my same game and keep fighting," she said she told herself.
Smith, a recent winner of the National Open Boys' 14s singles championship, met Oudin while they were both training at Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Ga. They've been dating for seven months. The two-year age difference between them led a snickering Mary Carillo to brand Oudin "a cougar" during one of her matches. But the mop-topped, self-effacing Smith doesn't seem to mind having an older woman call the shots. It just means that if they want to go out, she's the one who has to do the driving.
And when she has had farther to go -- be it Raleigh, N.C., where she won a modest clay-court tournament in May, or London, where she scored a third-round upset of former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic on the Wimbledon grass a month later -- Smith rides shotgun on those trips too. Unusual as it might seem for a couple so young to travel together, Oudin says it'd be even weirder without Smith. "You're, like, on the road so much and you're by yourself a lot," she said. "It's good to have someone to talk to."
The more Oudin wins, the more Smith is finding his role change from escort to pseudo bodyguard. A week that began with his taking her to see Rock of Ages on Broadway ended with his comforting a spooked Oudin when two photographers got into a shoving match during a photo-op in Times Square on Sunday.
Things got even worse that night, when her reservation at a Manhattan hotel expired. (Her agent quickly booked her elsewhere.) Whereas Smith and Oudin once could venture inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for a 9:30 a.m. hitting session without arousing much notice, now they can't wend their way to the Open's practice courts without attracting a crush of autograph seekers.
That's not the last time we'd see Smith wearing a different hat. During the Petrova match, Smith sat next to de Villiers outfitted in a Zappos.com cap instead of the dusty, frayed ball cap he had on at the start of the tournament -- a sign that some of Oudin's success is rubbing off on him as well.
He'll continue to urge her on her fairy-tale run against Wozniacki. The only seeded player remaining on Oudin's side of the draw, Wozniacki leads the tour in victories this year -- one of the more impressive coming on Monday, when she defeated reigning French Open and '04 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova 2-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3).
Chances are this quarterfinal match, like all of Oudin's over the last week, won't come down to who's got the better backhand. It will come down to who blinks first. "I think it's just mentally, I'm staying in there with them the whole time, and I'm not giving up at all," Oudin said. "If they're going to beat me, they're going to beat me. Because I'm not going to go anywhere."