Oudin relishes role as Next Big Thing

In the weeks leading to the U.S. Open, the chatter boards were full of talk about what’s wrong with women’s tennis.

Too much grunting, and too many robotic Russians. A strange absence of compelling matches, particularly in recent Grand Slam events.

At the top of most lists, though, was this: There are no up-and-coming American stars in a sport that used to feature them by the handful.

Scratch that complaint now. The teenager from Georgia with “Believe” written on her pink-and-yellow shoes is making believers out of a lot of people in her coming-out party at the U.S. Open.

Melanie Oudin isn’t just the biggest thing to hit U.S. tennis since the Williams sisters began winning big a decade ago. She could be the fresh face that helps reinvigorate the sport in this country.

No, she’s probably not going to beat Serena Williams in the final, assuming they both get that far. But she is making the women’s draw at this Open seem almost as much fun as the days when Chris Evert was smashing two-handed backhand winners.

And, at 17, she’s not afraid to make a statement that she is here to stay.

“I know that I can compete with the best in the world now,” Oudin said, “and I will know that forever.”

That’s good news for the inevitable day when the Williams sisters call it quits, because of age or disinterest. Before Oudin’s remarkable run in Queens, the cupboard for rising young American women’s players seemed even more bare than that of the men, who are done before the quarterfinals even begin.

But it’s how Oudin is doing it that has generated such buzz. She had no aces Monday against Nadia Petrova, yet managed to win a chess game with her bigger and far more experienced opponent by moving her around the court with long rallies before finally catching her a step behind.

And, unlike a lot of pretenders on the women’s circuit, she doesn’t seem afraid of losing, a trait that might mean more to her future success than the relentless way she patrols the baseline. She has come back from losing the first set in her last three matches to beat higher-ranked opponents.

“I’m doing well and I’m winning, that’s the only thing changing,” Oudin said. “I did believe I could compete, it was just figuring out a way to win.”

So far that way involves defeating one Russian after another to reach the quarterfinals, which would have made Oudin even more popular if it had happened during the Cold War. But she’s so young, she was barely born at the time the Soviet Union collapsed and the tennis boom in Russia and Eastern Europe began for real.

Unfortunately, the boom did not extend to the U.S., which has the Williams sisters but little else on the women’s side. Oudin, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, was 70th in the world coming into the Open but was No. 3 in the United States. Only four American women are ranked in the WTA top 100.

Things aren’t much better among the men. Andy Roddick is ranked No. 5, but he got bounced early by No. 55 John Isner, who exited himself on Monday. That left no Americans in the quarterfinals for the first time since the first Open was played 128 years ago.

The reasons for that are many and familiar to tennis fans. While millions of kids begin playing soccer and baseball at the age of 5, tennis barely exists at that level in most areas of the country. There are no leagues to foster talent, no organized competitions outside of the local tennis or country club.

And the tennis academies in Florida? They pump out players, all right, but a lot of them are foreign imports sent there to perfect their games.

“We have 300 million people in this country,” Andre Agassi said. “We got to get the racket in more kids’ hands.”

Oudin was one of the few connected with the game at a young age. She and her twin sister used to put makeshift nets in the street and play until dark, and she was home-schooled from age 12 so she could focus on her game.

Now she’s connecting with fans with her tenacious play, fist pumps and shoes that carry a message of hope. She’s fun to watch, and people who don’t normally follow tennis are tuning in.

She also understands her role in all of this. While celebrating her win, she also took a look at the big picture of what it all really means.

“I think this is going to do a lot,” Oudin said. “I think it’s good for American tennis.”

Indeed it is. But the great thing is that it might get even better.

Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at tdahlberg@ap.org.

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