Not very deep into Melanie Oudin's second-round match with Alona Bondarenko, a voice rang out from the upper reaches of Louis Armstrong Stadium: Come on, Melanie, you're back in New York now! It might not have been the most discreet thing to say, much as it gave a self-infatuated resident of Gotham an opportunity to indirectly blow his own horn. Actually, at that point Oudin might have been forgiven for wishing she were back in Marietta, which contrary to the adoptive instincts of the New York crowd is her actual home town.
It was a tough day for America's smurf, the pugnacious, bold youngster who stole our hearts last year when she upset a slew of Russian women to make the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open at the tender age of 17. The moment Oudin finally gave up the hunt—and not without a fight—with a loss to eventual runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, the pressure began to build, subtly but surely, as the calendar shed pages and the current tournament approached. She was in an odd if unstated position.
Oudin's magical performance in 2009 ensured that no matter what she did in the 11-plus months until this tournament, the only thing that would really matter—the only thing anyone was interested in, at least in a big way—was how she would perform here. She had a love affair with New York last year; did anyone think that either she or her enamorata would move on after a quick fling?
That pressure got hold of Oudin out on the floor of Louis Armstrong today, clung to her like shrink wrap, slowing the movement of her arm, making her legs feel heavier than they ought. It happens, and it's never pretty. Players get tight. They try everything to get into matches, but keep plowing into glass doors, or they keep trying to jam the wrong key in the lock of success. It's a terrible thing, really, especially for a player like Oudin, who's inventive and spirited, who likes to run free and exuberant. But it can't be helped. In fact, you could see this one coming from a mile away. To Oudin's credit, so did she.
In her first match here, Oudin played qualifier Olga Savchuk and gave her just three games. Oudin felt nervous before the match, but settled in after winning the first set, and played at full potential. But as she noted after losing to Bondarenko, 6-2, 7-5, "Today, I was playing someone Top 30 in the world, and you can't really get away with playing tight in the beginning. She would jump all over me, which is what happened. So I had to play even better in the second set to be able to come back. I thought I could play better and I definitely had my chances, but she was the better player today."
Right from the start, Oudin felt her feet growing roots, and no matter how hard she swung the racket, it didn't seem to move with the intended speed. She provided little resistance as she was broken in the first game, here reliable forehand way off mark. Bondarenko held with ease and that was pretty much it for the set.
The women broke each other in the first two games of the second set. Then, Oudin fell behind 15-40 while serving the third game. The first break point played out with Bondarenko hitting a lob that Oudin chased down, and saw fall short. The way Oudin flung her hand in the air to indicate that the ball landed out (it reminded me of a rec player in a public park tournament), and the look of panic in her eyes, revealed her emotional state. The competitor in her was musclebound and flat-footed.
Oudin was characteristically wide-eyed in her ensuing press conference. But she knew exactly what had happened, and wasn't inclined to fudge the truth. I couldn't help but admire the self-awareness and honesty with which she addressed the major issue. "I felt really good before going on the court. And then it was like the second I got out there, I did feel really tight. I think the nerves got the best of me today a little bit, especially in the first set. The second I got out there, I guess it kind of overwhelmed me a little bit. Like the crowd was like really, really loud. Second set I started playing a lot better, making the points a little bit longer."
Watching the match, I found myself wondering why Oudin, who's fleet and has a dangerous forehand, doesn't run around her backhand more often.
"Well, normally I do try to do that. But today, as you saw, I didn't. Normally when I get tight, my feet stop moving. That's pretty much what happened today. I didn't think I moved very well. And I think I really know why: It was because I was nervous and I got tight. Also, I don't swing as fast when that happens. So I think that's why my forehand wasn't working, like you said, as well, especially the down the line shot, that's one of my favorite shots. I hardly made that at all."
The stat sheet tells a gruesome tale: Oudin made 21 unforced forehand errors, and hit a grand total of three winners with her preferred stroke. She made nearly double the number of unforced errors as Bondarenko, 38 to 20. Yet there was room for hope on the stat sheet, too: Oudin's average first-serve speed was the same as that of her opponent (87 M.P.H.), and her average second-serve was 3 M.P.H. faster at 74. Oudin hit more than twice the number of winners as Bondarenko, although the tally is modest: 9 to 4.
Maybe she just needed to get this U.S. Open behind her, to show that what happened here in 2009 was a little magical, a little crazy. Wonderful to experience but impossible to rationalize, or establish as the norm for which to shoot."The U.S. Open last year was the first really, really good tournament that I had. I didn't have any amazing tournaments [before]. This was the main one. I happened to play the best at the U.S. Open, biggest Grand Slam of the year, pretty much. But was only one tournament last year.
"Now it's like. . . over. I guess I'm a little tiny bit relieved now. I can kind of start over, start over from all the expectations from like last year. And now I can just go out and hopefully do really well the rest of the year and keep working hard."
It's a good sign that she was looking forward, not back. She's only 18, and there's a lot more in front of than behind her.
After 16 consecutive years of always showing up at Wimbledon, winning five titles along the way, Venus Williams pulled out of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament Tuesday, citing a lower back injury.
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