After being dubbed 'Miracle Melanie' for her run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarters, Melanie Oudin's results spiraled downward. (Reuters)
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Perspective is an important things for both athletes and fans, and in the fast-paced world of tennis, it's easily lost. There are few who are more acutely aware of this than Melanie Oudin. Her career has played out as a cautionary tale about the treacherous downsides of early success. A success that she now says she was never prepared for.
"It's definitely something I won't ever forget," Oudin said. "It didn't happen how I thought it was going to happen. I never expected that to happen when I was 17."
Her memorable run at the 2009 U.S. Open -- beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Nadia Petrova, Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova to make the quarterfinals -- was a star-making turn, not only because of the quality of her wins but also because she was a bubbly teenager from Georgia making good on American soil under the New York lights. She was the first (and last) 17-year-old to make it that deep at a Grand Slam tournament since Nicole Vaidisova in 2007. But the feel-good story obscured one salient fact: At 17, Oudin, who hadn't even won a tour-level event, wasn't as good as that run made her appear to be.
If that sparkling September in 2009 was the highest of highs for Oudin, the last two years have been the lowest of lows. She won only one match for the remainder of 2009, and after seeing her ranking plummet from a career-high No. 31 in 2010, she's been stuck playing lower-level ITF tournaments and trying (and failing) to qualify for WTA Tour events. They say that expectations can be crippling, but in Oudin's case they really were. She said she would get so nervous during matches that she couldn't even swing her racket. Journalists acted as inquisitors and fans took to coaching, yelling advice and critique from the stands.
"I just needed to not worry about what everyone else was saying," she said. "Even during matches, hearing people yell and say things, I just need to go into my own world like how I used to and just focus on what I want to do and not the winning and losing."
Coming into the Family Circle Cup this week, Oudin, now ranked No. 304, hadn't won a match since last September and needed a wild card just to get into the qualifying tournament. But Charleston has always been good to Oudin. She beat Britain's Heather Watson 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 to get her first win of 2012, and then defeated Petra Rampre 6-3, 6-2 for her first back-to-back victories since November 2010. She lost to Anabel Medina Garrigues 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 in the first round of the main draw, but make no mistake, this was a banner week for Oudin. It's all about perspective.
"It was definitely a good few days for me," Oudin said. "Putting two wins together, especially the win over Heather. I've been training a bunch with coaches ... really working on the training and fitness and everything like that. So now I'm starting to play tournaments again and so far, it's good. Getting three matches in a row was good. I just need more matches."
Given her track record the past two years, it might be easy to dismiss this week's results as a fluke. But Oudin has changed things up significantly behind the scenes. Most notably, she split with longtime coach Brian de Villers last fall and started training at the National Tennis Center in New York four weeks ago. Working with USTA coaches Jay Gooding and Jorge Todero (both of whom also coach Christina McHale), Oudin is already enjoying noticeable improvement, particularly in her fitness.
"So now I'm going to be based out of New York. I don't have a place or anything yet," Oudin said with a laugh. "I never thought I would end up there. But the training is definitely working. I can tell I'm getting quicker again and stronger.
"It was just better training, better coaching, pretty much everything," Oudin said regarding her decision to train in New York over Boca Raton, Fla. "There's not many girls there so it's more individual and that's pretty nice. I get private fitness and it's really one-on-one so I can work on the specific things that I need to work on."
Oudin is still as bubbly as ever, but there's a maturity about her that stems from having to work through two years of struggles. She's spent that time trying to process that fateful U.S. Open run, deal with expectations and learn how to manage herself.
"I feel like now I'm finally in a good place where I feel like I'm starting over," Oudin said. "Because that was so much and it took me a couple of years to get over it."
Next up for Oudin are three $50,000 ITF tournaments in Dothan, Ala., Charlottesville, Va., and Indian Harbour, Fla. The USTA has abandoned its French Open wild-card playoff format so this year the women's wild card will go to the player who posts the best cumulative results at these three events.
"I'm still only 20," Oudin reminded reporters. That little comment felt like more of a bombshell than anything else. She is only 20. "I've done all that stuff already," Oudin said, "so I have plenty of time to slow down, find out the right coach for me, the right training for me, start my training fresh and slowly get my ranking back up again."