By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
CARLSBAD, Calif. -- During her rapid rise up the ranking charts in 2009, Melanie Oudin pulled off plenty of dramatic three-set comebacks. But those heroics have been hard to come by the past couple of years, which is why her 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-0 victory over fellow American Sloane Stephens at the Mercury Insurance Open was extra special.
Down 6-4 in the tiebreaker, she stayed solid, while the teenager Stephens grew tight and threw in a series of unforced errors.
Then 2009 US Open quarterfinalist Oudin put her foot to the gas pedal and took off, possibly playing her best set of tennis in 2012. She was quick, steady, resourceful and powerful. She looked like Melanie 2.0, a more mature player on court and off.
"I started off really bad, and she came out firing, and that’s what she does well - get on top of people quickly," she said. "I was going to try and stay with her, but I felt I was controlling the points but was missing. After being down 4-2 in the second, I started finding my range more, and my forehand started working."
Oudin saw Stephens deflate, and her confidence soared. She’s been where Sloane was before -- with a match in her hands and seeing it slip away.
"It completely changed. going from her crushing me to me having a pretty easy third set," Oudin said. "I played her in the past, and she was the one controlling the points, and I decided I was going to be the one inside the baseline trying to control the points, whether I missed them or not. And finally I found my timing and started to control the ball better. I felt in control of every point, everything was on my terms, and that's how I want to be playing tennis."
The 20-year-old Oudin’s sojourn from being the bubbly teen who made a splash in 2009, when she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the US Open at the age of 17, to the confused player who fell to No. 304 in the rankings at the start of April after having failed to have win a main-draw WTA match for eight months is a harrowing one.
She admittedly struggled under the spotlight after taking out four excellent Russians, including Maria Sharapova in New York in 2009, but even though it’s never easy for young players to have attention poured on them when they haven’t emotionally matured yet (another great example of that is American Jennifer Capriati, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend and admittedly wasn’t prepared for the deluge of media she received as a teenager), it was unusual for a player like Oudin to drop that far because she won matches with her legs and consistency, not with a high-risk game that is more prone to break down under pressure.
The Georgia native’s slide wasn’t that rapid, but it was already apparent in 2012 that she was having trouble. While she reached four WTA quarterfinals, she also fell in the first round of 12 different tournaments. In 2011, she suffered an astounding 13 first-round losses and lost in the second round six times. She ended the year with a 10-33 record in singles, and her sole bright spot was winning her first Grand Slam title in mixed doubles at the US Open with Jack Sock.
But she decided in the fall to split with her longtime private coach Brian DeVilliers and go to work with USTA Player Development. Eventually, she moved her base from Georgia to New York so she could also work with USTA Player Development chief Patrick McEnroe and his group at the USTA Training Center – East at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Her conditioning improved, she cleaned up her strokes, and she rediscovered her foundation, which was not being a hyper-aggressive player, but a patient, relentless counterpuncher.
She began to "believe" once again, the same word that she magic-markered on her shoes at the 2009 US Open.
"I feel like I’ve been through every part of it -- the highs and lows -- and now I feel whatever happens I’ll be ready for it because I've experienced it," she said. "So whether I have great success or a slump again, I’ll know what to expect, and I’ll know I can come out of it. I think I’ve been in my biggest slump ever, and it can’t get worse than that. But the biggest thing is my confidence. My demeanor on court is so much better."
She qualified for the WTA tournament in Charleston and scored her first two wins of the year. She then took a gigantic step, winning five straight matches to take the title at the USTA Boyd Tinsley Challenger. She would win the points race to secure the USTA Roland Garros wild card, won a match in Paris, and then she put her feet firmly on the grass and grabbed her first WTA title at Birmingham by besting former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in the final. She also received a wild card into Wimbledon.
A couple of weeks later, she feels like she belongs once again and is happy to be in California with two of her other New York training partners, fellow players Christina McHale and Varvara Lepchenko, along with USTA coach Jay Devashetty.
On Wednesday in Carlsbad, she’ll face another young player who has had a steep learning curve, Urszula Radwanska, Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka’s younger sister. If she wins that match, she’ll be back in the top 100 next week, exactly where she belongs.
"I feel like every part of my game is getting better and mentally I’m much more confident when I walk on court, said Oudin. "I really feel I can win the match no matter who it’s against. I’m finding my game again and can even be better than when I was No. 31 in the world."