The U.S. Open is coming up in a few weeks and one of the players that will get a lot of attention, perhaps too much attention, is Melanie Oudin. Oudin, who reached her first U.S. Open quarterfinals last year after taking out a trio of Russians including Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova became a household name overnight in America and immediately anointed the “next great American star”. Oudin lost her quarterfinal match to another teenager at the time, Caroline Wozniacki, and afterwards Oudin, though giving full credit to the Dane’s play, said the media attention she received overwhelmed her so much she couldn’t 100% focus on preparing for the match. So when I read the other day in a blog Oudin is writing for Tennis.com that she felt her early round loss in Cincinnati last week to Elena Vesnina was due in part to her “media obligations” prior to the match, I felt an immediate pang for her. And then one look at the banner for her blog confirmed everything for me.
The media hype machine has started for Oudin at the U.S. Open. And it’s the last thing she needs right now.
Since her star-making run in New York, the last twelve months have been up but mostly down for Oudin. On the positive side, she found herself at a career high ranking of 31 back in May and her best result was a semifinal showing at the Paris Indoors earlier in the year. But Oudin’s win/loss record is a sub-par 17 wins, 18 losses along with several first round exits including Melbourne, Roland Garros, and just yesterday in Montreal. Now at a ranking of 44, Oudin will once again go into the U.S. Open as an unseeded player, but this time more eyes and more expectations will be on her to perform another “miracle” run. Even worse for Oudin, and this is something she already knows, is that everybody will want to talk about last year’s run, something which she has stated publicly she has moved on from.
Last year, Oudin seemed heaven sent from the tennis gods for American sports media. From her 15-year-old boyfriend who told her to put “believe” on her sneakers which became instant hot sellers to her “gosh I’m just so glad to be here” demeanor, Oudin found herself on talk shows and magazine covers across the country. But a feisty and candid player who is quick to speak her mind has replaced that wide-eye girl this year. To her credit, Oudin is aware of last year’s hype and instead wants to focus on her game now. Although she might need to figure out a better way to balance being a media darling so that it doesn’t affect her actual match play. I’m surprised she even agreed to blog for Tennis.com considering the amount of time that takes (and I should know). At only 19, Oudin certainly has time to improve her game, but will the media give her that time or instead use her as a poster-child for “what’s wrong with American tennis” if she continues to lose early?
Although I wish those who schedule matches at the U.S. Open would put Oudin’s first round match on an outer court, I have a feeling the heavy hands of the television networks covering the event will make sure Oudin, even if she gets lucky and draws an unseeded player, gets placed on Arthur Ashe Stadium, at night, in primetime. The positive in that is Oudin played all but one match last year on the biggest stage in tennis so she’s used to it. But if Oudin loses first round, she may not hear the end of it for a while.
Only Oudin herself and time perhaps will end up determining if Oudin’s successful 2009 U.S. Open was a one-time fluke or the start of a bigger career. For her sake, and for American tennis, let’s hope our country’s need to “believe” in a new tennis champion doesn’t cross over into delusion which, if you consider the current climate in America anyway, would not be the first time.