Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do What The Sneaker Tells You To Do!

Should we still do what the sneaker tells us to do and believe in Melanie Oudin?

Melanie Oudin taught us a lot last summer in New York. She taught us that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that truly matters. She also taught us that if you can dream it, you can do it. Believe, the sneaker said, and boy did she do just that. In Oudin we had a fierce dog who wouldn’t back down from a challenger, but we also had a sweet innocent puppy who would lay down in our lap after biting an intruders ankle.

Unfortunately, Oudin’s surprise rise to the quarters of the U.S. Open at the age of 17 also taught us just how eager we are to identify a new definition of women’s tennis in America. It isn’t that the Williamses are boring to us - for it is widely known that they are anything but that - or that we aren’t both proud and lucky to call them our own here in the U.S. It’s just that being a one-trick pony can be a little stressful at times. What happens 2,3,5, or 10 years from now when the Williamses finally decide to stop saving American’s bacon as a Women’s Tennis nation?

In Oudin, for a brief 2 month period last summer, we thought we had our answer. Not only was the kid from Marietta, Georgia complementing her exceptional foot-speed and tenacity with a surprisingly potent forehand, but she also possessed those rare and desirable traits that have historically proven to be an integral part of the makeup of any true tennis champion: she was mentally tough and she didn’t just deal with the pressure - she embraced it.

True, she was young. So young, in fact, that we worried about what all the attention was going to do to her. Instantly famous, Oudin seemed both nonplussed and starstruck by her new status. I’m just me, she said. Why are so many people googling me, she wondered.

Since that inspiring U.S. Open there is cause for concern. The fact of the matter is that Oudin has had as many photo opportunities with Justin Timberlake as she has had wins - 1 of each.

Her last loss, a 1st round 3-set heartbreaker to Russian Alla Kudryavtseva, was a match that Oudin could have easily won in straight sets. Instead the poster child for belief became a picture of doubt as she failed to convert 4 match points in the 2nd set. After a comeback from 4-1 down in the third set, Oudin again slipped, failing to hold serve to stay alive in the match.

While it was a disappointing match for the girl who has simultaneously been on top of the world and had the weight of the world on her shoulders since September, her reaction to the defeat provided evidence of why we should still continue to believe in Melanie. Oudin didn’t whine about the loss, even as it tore her up inside. She hustled to the net and warmly congratulated her opponent for a good match.

It was a subtle exchange, but it spoke volumes about the character of Oudin. There was something in that handshake that reminded me of why she is so endearing as a competitor. She’s not one to run and hide behind excuses. And she’s not one to fail to acknowledge when she’s been beaten.

Ultimately, the ability to accept her imperfections will help Oudin as she navigates her way through the early years of her career - and through the early years of navigating America’s expectations for her.

In her post match press conference, Oudin reiterated the fact that she is still very much a work in progress. “I only did well in one tournament, and I’m still learning,” she said. “Everyone expects me to play like that all the time and I’m trying to get better.”

The press grilled her successfully after the following quote - “The good thing about today is that I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m not going to be up 6-2, 5-3, and think I have it.” - by asking her in a smug tone to tell them what precisely she could have done out there that would have made any difference.

When the 18-year-old Oudin couldn’t satisfy the press, I felt the desire to come to her aid. I felt bad for her because she can't be a kid anymore - we simply won't let her because it isn't feasible - she knows that as well as we do.

We live in a world where only dogs get to be kids, but that is a whole different story to tell at another time, my friends.

Anyway, I knew I couldn't really help her, and I'm sure she'll eventually come up with the words to help herself. But that fact didn't stop me from wanting to give her the following words to say to the press, just to make the uncomfortable environment in the room a little more uplifting: “True champions are able to identify certain situations and label them as pivotal during a match, and those certain champions bring their best tennis forward - every ounce of energy, confidence, cleverness, and ability - in these situations to ensure that they capitalize on those moments. It is a string of moments that makes a match momentous. And momentous matches are the kind of things that make a good career great. (insert long, emotional pause here - with feeling) I want to be one of those players that crosses the line of good and marches into the territory of great.”

Just because she didn’t say it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t in her heart. It is very early in Melanie’s career, and I do believe that she will emerge from her recent fall from grace as a better player.

The belief that she so proudly made her calling card has been tested - deep down I don’t think the fighter in Oudin would have wanted it any other way.

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