Thursday January 12th, 2012

Melanie Oudin, shown here at Wimbledon last year, failed to qualify for the 2012 Australian Open. (Sang Tan/AP)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Before this week, Melanie Oudin’s last appearance in Grand Slam qualifying came in 2009, when she made the Wimbledon main draw followed by a surprising run to the Round of 16. Two months later, she had her household-name-making turn as a 17-year-old at the U.S. Open, where the undersized but determined Georgia teen rallied for upsets of Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova to reach the quarterfinals.

Now, more than two years later, those glory days seem a distant memory. Oudin on Wednesday played a first-round qualifying match for the Australian Open against Britain's next great hope, Laura Robson, who turns 18 next week. It's difficult to fathom that at that age, Oudin was taking down some of the top women match after match on the big stage in New York. Robson's accomplishments at 17 do not come close to rivaling Oudin’s. But one thing tennis teaches is how quickly fortunes can change.

Theirs was a match of contrasts, with one prospect on the rise and another fighting to stem the fall. Oudin, 10-33 last year in singles with first-round losses in all four majors, is down to No. 166 after peaking at No. 31 in April 2010. A few years removed from playing in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium full of strangers screaming her name, she found herself on a much smaller Court 3 in Melbourne Park, where her only audible support was the intermittent clapping from her coach and fellow American players. On the other hand, Robson -- who climbed from No. 206 at the end of 2010 to No. 131 entering this year -- was greeted by British flags and an army of Lawn Tennis Association representatives, coaches and British reporters sitting in rapt attention, along with plenty of encouragement from fans as she quickly raced ahead.

Oudin, always the counterpuncher, was no match for Robson's effortless power, which looks to be more a product of impeccable timing than brute strength. While Oudin struggled to get her groundstrokes past the service line, Robson -- who was playing her first match since suffering a stress fracture in her shin that put her on crutches for a number of weeks in the offseason -- consistently got the ball deep and into the corners and feasted on Oudin's second serve. In less than 45 minutes, Robson was a point away from dishing out a humiliating loss, leading 6-3, 5-0, 40-love on her serve. The one-sided display left my viewing companion wondering aloud whether the seagulls circling Court 3 were actually vultures.

But, yes, those fortunes changed -- at least temporarily. Despite a seemingly insurmountable lead, Robson's nerves kicked in as she tried to close out the match and move a step closer to her first main-draw appearance at the Australian Open. Robson lost her concentration and Oudin suddenly came back from 0-40 down to break serve and get the jolt she needed.

With momentum beginning to shift, Oudin finally stepped in to go for her shots. And when she couldn't do that, she played high-percentage tennis that forced an already-frustrated and shaky Robson to pile up unforced errors. "That is honestly the worst forehand you have ever hit," a frustrated Robson muttered after sending a neutral ball sailing a yard wide. Oudin reeled off four straight games to make it 4-5, with Robson failing to convert eight match points. Could Oudin complete the turnaround and force a third set, like she did in coming back from a set down in those three stirring victories at the U.S. Open in 2009?

Oudin came close to at least getting back on serve. Robson, serving for the match a third time, saved a break point before converting her 10th match point, securing a 6-3, 6-4 victory in a battle that was somehow closer than the score line indicates while simultaneously being not close at all.

Robson’s form overall was surprisingly good, given that she was on crutches less than a month ago and began playing practice points only last week. As for Oudin, the feistiness and fight are still there. But her movement is not where it was and her lack of confidence was most evident when she repeatedly missed routine groundstrokes from the middle of the court. It's hard to know what to say about Oudin these days. Writing off a 20-year-old seems unnecessary and inherently cruel. But what's clear is that she hasn't made significant progress from last year, and at this rate it's fair to wonder if we'll ever see the day when she's able to compete in a meaningful way at a Tour-level event again.

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