NEW YORK—Melanie Oudin has a flight to Paris this evening, but on this humid, rainy, Wednesday afternoon, she's just finishing up a final practice session on green Har-Tru clay, one of four courts under the giant white bubble that stands like a tethered cloud in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Were it utterly silent and Oudin in a moment of repose, she might be able to conjure up echoes of those wonderful days and nights in 2009 when, while just 18, she held those 20,000-plus fans and an international tennis audience in the palm of her hand. They were bewitched by her smurf-like figure, the world "Believe" written on the heel cups of her multi-colored tennis shoes, and riveted by her unexpected dash to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.
Oudin still hears those echoes now and then, and despite what they ultimately cost her, she wouldn't trade them for anything. But that was then, and this is now; she is neither haunted nor obsessed by memories. How can she be, at a mere 20 years of age?
Dressed in plain white shorts and a gray t-shirt, she holds the face of her racquet parallel to the ground and carefully collects the balls (that, and sweeping the courts after practice, are mandatory chores for all the pros and aspiring WTA or ATP stars who are part of the USTA Player Development program). Oudin is building a pyramid, placing each ball carefully atop the others, and for a moment right at the very end of this collection, the great pile trembles and seems on the brink of collapse, and all the balls will spill over and roll and bounce away.
But Oudin's hand is steady, the balls settle back, and she quickly dumps them into a shopping cart.
Oudin knows how quickly things can get a way from you, after all. Nobody needs to warn her about how quickly things can change in tennis. Change for the better, as they did when she had that great run and became an overnight sensation in 2009, but also for the worse, as they did in the years that followed, when Oudin found the pressure that came along with her newfound reputation too much to bear.
"It was just. . . really hard," Oudin told me after that practice session, as we rode to a nearby diner in the car of USTA communications director Tim Curry. "One day I was normal, and the next day at the U.S. Open everyone knew who I was. But you can drop down, too. In a heartbeat you can drop back down."
One consolation for Oudin, though, is that things can change for the better again—and often in what may seem like the blink of an eye. Which is what happened when, following a dramatic change of scenery, Oudin experienced enough of a resurgence and so convincingly resurrected her missing confidence that she earned the USTA wild card into the upcoming French Open, mainly on the strength of her win in the recent Charlottesville Challenger.
Now, she's off to France on the magic wild card carpet, and while her ranking is still "modest" (No. 278). She has reason to hope this is just the beginning of a new period in her career.
"There was nothing really wrong with my game," she said of those hard times in the latter half of 2010 and 2011. "I just put so much pressure on myself that the confidence started to go down—and down. It got to the point where I would be so tight that I could hardly even swing the racquet. That never happened to me before. And it was hard to get past."
She added, "It's funny how people, some people, act like this never happened to anyone before. I'm like, I can name ten people who have gone through something like this—who have been No. 30 or 40 in the world and then go down because those sophomore and junior years are the toughest, and they were my 2010 and 2011."
Ask Oudin about the low point of her post-2009 years and she points to the period just after Wimbledon last season. She had struggled through Europe for two months and "lost badly" at Wimbledon (winning just one game against Ana Ivanovic). She knew she needed a break, a mental one, from tennis. So she took a few weeks off and returned, feeling refreshed and ready to go. But she lost in the first round in her next five events. "I felt so much better, I was really ready to come back and do better," she said. "But it didn't work. That was hard. I came back and I was just so tight again."
Finally convinced that she needed to really shake things up, she decided to split with her coach, Brian de Villiers. He had been her only coach (they started together when Oudin was nine), but he also loomed as a figure in the regrettably public divorce of Oudin's parents—an ongoing story in the fall of 2009.
Last October, with her ranking down to No. 143, Oudin split with de Villiers and joined the USTA Player Development program. She moved to the organization's training facility in Boca Raton, Fla. later that fall. But the fit just didn't feel right, and she needed to know why. She needed a point of comparison, which is why she decided to move to New York, to train with the USTA coaches there.
Some of the staff felt that Oudin was not in great shape. "When you're doing well, you think, 'Okay, everything is great," she told me." You think, 'I want to keep doing what I'm doing.' But when you're not winning it's different. You can get a little discouraged. It's not like I wanted to give up the game. I've always loved playing tennis, win or lose. But it took my confidence. Pretty much all of it. And then I just wasn't so excited to go and do tennis, do fitness, all the things you need."
While she's a blue-eyed Georgia girl who can tell a Kenny Chesney song from one by Jason Aldean, she has flourished in Gotham while living in the guest house of a family in Pound Ridge, New York. And she was impressed by the structure and high-intensity of the New York program from the get get-go.
"I didn't really have time to be homesick," she said. "We're so busy—four hours a day of tennis, and two hours of fitness. I'm so tired by the end of most days that I don't care about anything else."
Oudin has worked closely with a various USTA coaches, including Jay Gooding and Jorge Todero (by design, each player works with a variety of coaches). Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of USTA Player Development, says of Oudin's history: "Getting as high as No. 31 (she hit that plateau in April of 2010), she was trying to do too much, too quickly—trying to live up to this 'next big thing' burden. I think she felt she had to hit bigger, end points more quickly. She was slowly getting away from her counter-punching game, and then everything just kind of snowballed.
"Our goal is to get her in prime condition for mid-summer. There's nothing wrong with her game. She can crack the forehand, and she's got a good slice. She's very receptive to coaching and she has a really good tennis IQ. All she really has needed is to get her identity back. Find that confidence and the game that goes along with it again."
By the time we got back to the National Tennis Center from the diner, it was time for Oudin to field a conference call from reporters. Dutifully lugging the lunch bag that contained a chicken wrap with rice that would just have to wait, we followed Curry to an office in the indoor-court complex. Evidently it was the wrong place and Oudin knew where to go. Worried about the time, Curry turned quickly to go.
Oudin's eyes twinkled as they met mine and she shrugged her shoulders and appeared to suppress a giggle. "I've done this before," she reminded. "It's all going to work out."