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Through triumphs and turmoil, Melanie Oudin is still believing
Ten years after her transcendent US Open run, the 27-year-old American is finding new ways to succeed.
Published Aug 19, 2019
In eastern Alpharetta, GA sits Lake Windward. It’s a tranquil, entrancing place for parents to send their kids to summer camp. On the southwest section lies the Windward Lake Club, a 19-acre facility where children are encouraged to explore the outdoors. A 150-foot water slide and diving boards await thrill-seekers. Across the grounds, a dozen girls age 10 to 14 are sharpening their tennis skills. Confidence and camaraderie rule this court. Missed shots and disappointment are supplanted by one word their sunny leader preaches daily: Believe.
For Melanie Oudin, the power of believing has guided her through triumphs and turbulence.
At the 2009 US Open, Oudin was ranked 70th in the world. She’d enjoyed a prosperous junior career and showed signs of professional promise at Wimbledon earlier that summer. But to the general tennis fan, Oudin was just another 17-year-old. By tournament’s end, she ranked No. 1 in headlines and hearts of fans with a remarkable run—commanded by the footsteps inside an imaginative pair of sneakers embellished with the word Believe.
The pink-and-yellow footwear appropriately characterized Oudin’s personality: vivid, captivating, interesting and assertive. The word choice was inspired by regret from a year earlier. Making her US Open main-draw debut, Oudin drew fellow wild card Jessica Moore. The Australian prevailed in two tiebreakers, and that squandered opportunity stayed with Oudin for the next 12 months.
“I always liked the word believe,” Oudin says. “Especially after my US Open experience the year before,
I thought this would be so cool. I wanted to redeem myself from 2008.”
Oudin began her redemption tour against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the first of four successive Russians she would face. As Oudin puts it, it was one of the best matches she ever played, punctuating her first US Open win with an ace to advance, 6–1, 6–2. From there, the script shifted to a story of struggle, heart and, yes, belief.
World No. 4 Elena Dementieva awaited Oudin in the second round. The two were assigned to Arthur Ashe Stadium—Oudin’s debut on the world’s largest tennis stage. The Marietta, GA native had warmed up on the court ahead of the match, but walking inside the massive venue for player introductions was an impossible scenario to duplicate. Oudin always savored the limelight, but she wasn’t prepared for how bright it would soon become.
Oudin battled past Dementieva, 5–7, 6–4, 6–3, holding onto hope after a tough first set against “some of the best groundstrokes in the world.” The win led Oudin to a third-round match against Maria Sharapova, a blockbuster that ultimately turned the teenager into an overnight sensation.
Eight inches shorter than her counterpart, it was Oudin’s forehand that played a pivotal role in another decisive set on Ashe. Realizing that her slice second serve played into Oudin’s most reliable weapon, an apprehensive Sharapova committed 21 double faults. Oudin seized the opportunity, eliminating the 2006 champion with a 7–5 third-set win—and sending the National Tennis Center into a frenzy.
“When I trained with [Sharapova’s former coach] Michael Joyce four years after that match,” Oudin recalls, “he said Maria was working so much on the slice serve because of her shoulder trouble. She didn’t want to serve to my forehand, so she wasn’t sure what to do as the match went on. It was so interesting to hear my forehand had big of an impact on someone like Sharapova.”
If fans didn’t know who Oudin was before that win, they did now.
“The day after I beat Sharapova,” Oudin says, “it was almost like everyone knew who I was.”
With all eyes on her, the newly minted media darling soon found herself trailing veteran Nadia Petrova 6–1 in the fourth round. Petrova, a consistent force on tour, looked to capitalize on the draw Oudin had broken wide open.
Her opponent’s demeanor started sluggish, but it didn’t stick. Erasing a break deficit to win the second set, Oudin’s veins were rehydrated with the conviction needed to pull out yet another comeback, 1–6, 7–6 (2), 6–3.
“The crowd by then was so amazing in trying to get me ahead in that match. They really pulled me through,” Oudin says. “That was probably the loudest during the run. I knew if she didn’t close it out to get to the quarterfinals, I could take advantage of any nerves.”
Oudin’s run would end with a 6–2, 6–2 defeat to Caroline Wozniacki, a poised, professional competitor who “didn’t give you anything for free.” The Ashe crowd extended a prolonged sendoff, embracing the underdog who gave audiences across America reason to believe in the impossible.
Oudin would hang out with Justin Timberlake at Fashion Night; an appearance on Ellen soon followed.
“I’m near the dressing rooms,” Oudin recalls of the latter, “and Queen Latifah looks at me from down the hall and shouted, ‘OUDINNN! Girl, I watched you at the US Open. I was pulling for you against all of those tall Russian players!’ It was unreal. I couldn’t believe she knew who I was.”
Oudin later represented the U.S. in the 2010 Fed Cup final, won her first WTA singles title at Birmingham in 2012, and was involved in another Cinderella story at Flushing Meadows when she captured the 2011 US Open mixed doubles trophy with partner Jack Sock. But a series of unrelated illnesses beyond Oudin’s control soon consumed her life—ranging from rhabdomyolysis, a muscle-damaging condition possibly caused by intense exertion—to a rare form of arrhythmia.
After numerous attempts to conquer the challenges, Oudin made the difficult decision to hang up her racquet at just 25, in August 2017.
“I did the best I could with the hand I was dealt,” Oudin says. “I wish I could have had another run like 2009, or kept going until my 30s.
“My body wasn’t the same after that muscle condition. There are no what ifs. It’s the way it is, and I have to believe it happened for a reason."
Coming from a structure where goals were firmly set, with an objective to win each week, it took Oudin a year to figure out her next move. She still enjoyed tennis, and wanted to connect her story with a passion of working with children. So she took a full-time job at Windward Lake Club’s Next Level Academy—where today you’ll find her leading a green-ball high performance group of 8-10 year-olds, and giving lessons on Saturdays. She also holds her ‘Believe’ summer camps, donates time to charity events and visits local schools to share her journey. The 27-year-old is paying her dues like any other fledgling professional.
“People respected me a ton as a player. They know my accomplishments. I got there through hard work and all the years of dedication. As a coach, it takes time to earn people’s respect,” Oudin says. “If I’m in and out, it’s hard to get that trust of the parents and players. They want someone they can rely on, is there when they call, and will come to tournaments to watch and give them lessons.”
Oudin is especially enthusiastic about impacting future generations. She’s been in their shoes, knows the ins-and-outs of player development and enjoys instilling the life lessons tennis provides. While she hinted at a possible future interest in coaching at the pro level, Oudin feels she is exactly where she belongs right now.
“I really want these girls to learn to believe in themselves, have confidence in their abilities, on the court and off. It’s for life,” Oudin says.
“It gets them all together, which is important. They do a really good job of pushing each other. There aren’t a lot of female coaches out there now, so I want to be that role model.”
Ten years have passed since Oudin made her unforgettable mark. If history is any indication, she will continue to resonate with the public. Could one of the 10-year-olds drilling balls at Lake Windward this year play in the 2026 US Open? To answer, all you have to do is think of Oudin, and just believe.