Atlanta magazine :: December 2009 :: Melanie Oudin
 
December 2009

Believe!

In a sport ruled by women half a foot taller, Melanie Oudin leveraged a tireless work ethic and a staggering intensity to surprise everyone at this year’s U.S. Open—everyone, that is, except herself.
By Elizabeth Westby Florio

Three weeks before this year’s U.S. Open, seventeen-year-old Melanie Oudin and her fifteen-year-old boyfriend, Austin Smith, sat in front of her laptop to figure out a design for the shoes she would wear during the tennis tournament. Ranked seventieth in the world, Melanie was still very much unknown outside her hometown of Marietta. Earlier in the summer, she’d caused a brief stir by upsetting sixth-ranked Jelena Jankovic in the third round of Wimbledon, after entering as a qualifier. Jankovic, a five-foot-ten Serb, was not a gracious loser, telling reporters she’d been ill during the match and that besides, Melanie “cannot hurt you with anything. She doesn’t have any weapons.”

Jankovic may have been uncharitable in her assessment of Melanie’s abilities, but she wasn’t unreasonable. Melanie is five foot six, the same height as Chris Evert, who won eighteen Grand Slam titles by the time she retired in 1989. But Evert reigned in a
 Photograph by Kelly Kline
different era. Today, the average height of the top ten female players in the world is five-ten. Venus Williams is six-one. Maria Sharapova is an inch taller. Height may not be everything in tennis, but it’s a lot. Long arms and legs allow for greater reach and leverage as well as stronger, more angled serves. Little surprise, then, that Melanie’s tennis role model is Justine Henin, the former world number one who stands a quarter-inch shorter than Melanie. What Henin lacked in stature she made up for with hustle and exceptional technique.

Melanie and Austin went to the Adidas website, which allows customers to design their own sneakers. One of her sponsors, Adidas had asked her to put together an eye-catching design for the U.S. Open. After discovering the online tool had no purple to match the outfit they’d provided, she opted for a bright pink and yellow with midnight-blue stripes. The blank for an inscription near the heel made her pause, though. Her name was an obvious, and boring, choice. She thought of “courage” and “heart,” but they didn’t grab her.

“What about ‘Believe’?” Austin suggested.

“That’s perfect,” Melanie said.

All her brief career Melanie had been the younger, smaller contender. Jankovic’s critique aside, she compensated by developing an arsenal of weapons: expert footwork, a commanding forehand, the ability to construct a point. But her greatest weapon was a profound belief in herself—not arrogance exactly, but a deep-seated conviction that she could compete with anyone, that the answer wasn’t foretold. What it would take was one significant victory—her first-round win at Wimbledon or, when she was fifteen, her first junior title—and she would become virtually unstoppable. Let other people worry that she was a head shorter, or fifty spots back in the rankings, or down a set. She knew she could pull out the win. She bought into it. She believed. The shoes were on their way.

* * *

Every morning during the summer of 1999, seven-year-old Melanie would make her way across the well-manicured West Cobb subdivision where her parents and grandparents lived. She’d cross the cul-de-sac, pass under a pergola, and descend a staircase to a pair of sunken tennis courts. Joan Robertson was a longtime member of the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association and had promised to teach her granddaughter to play that summer—as long as she’d show up before the heat of the day. “I said, ‘You need to be out there by 7:30,’” Robertson says. “Sure enough, she’d come trotting down those stairs in that little white hat.” Melanie’s twin sister, Katherine, sometimes joined them, and Robertson fed them balls from the ball hopper or played Australian doubles, two against one.

Putting a racket in young Melanie’s hands was the equivalent of hitting the “on” switch; the girl was wired for the sport. Her great-uncle, Frank “Buckshot” Willett, captained the 1945 Georgia Tech tennis team and was inducted into the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame. Her great-grandfather, “Daddy Rex” Godwin, was active in the tennis community of Anniston, Alabama; they closed the courts the day he died. And though Melanie dabbled in team sports such as soccer, singles tennis resonated with her. Perhaps because she was a twin, or just because it was in her character, she reveled in controlling her own fate on the asphalt, racket in hand and half the court to protect. “She’s always been a self-driven person,” says her father, John Oudin, who works in software sales and marketing. “Not a loner, but very, very independent.”

Born one minute apart, the twins don’t much resemble each other but instead are miniature versions of their parents. Melanie has the fair hair and skin of Leslie, their mother; Katherine has their father’s auburn curls. As kids, they spent most of their time outside—playing four square, badminton, pickup tennis in the street. While Katherine loved the sport, she tired of it more quickly than Melanie did. “I was always the one to go in and color,” Katherine says. In the early days the sisters played equally, and well. They often faced each other in the finals of local tournaments, trading sets 7-6, 6-7 until someone had to win. The sisters had an unwritten rule: No one was allowed to win two sets in a row. Once, at a tournament in Norcross, Katherine won the first set. “We sat down and Melanie said, ‘Now it’s my turn to win,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ But I didn’t want to lose, so I won the next set, and she was really angry,’” Katherine recalls. “That was the turning point. Melanie always beat me after that.”

* * *

On September 1, the sunny second day of the 2009 U.S. Open, a dense crowd turned out at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. Melanie and her coach, Brian de Villiers, were momentarily caught up in the foot traffic and snaking concession lines of the Grandstand, the smallest of the park’s three show courts. It was time to warm up for her first-round match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but she wasn’t sure how to get onto the court. She flagged down an usher, who took one look at the oversize tennis bag on her back and whisked her in the right direction.

Melanie’s cheering section gathered in front-row seats along the sideline. There was Katherine, and their eleven-year-old sister, called Bunny. Austin sat with de Villiers, while Melanie’s mother and grandmother sat together but apart from her father; indeed, whenever both parents attended their daughter’s matches that week, they would sit apart. Emotions ran high. John, whose father was a stockbroker, teared up the previous morning when Melanie rang the Nasdaq bell, her beaming face broadcast over Times Square. Katherine had never seen her sister play on this kind of stage. “Did you see the giant poster of Melanie outside?” she exclaimed to Bunny.

If Austin felt nervous for his girlfriend, he didn’t show it. An accomplished player himself, he met Melanie at the Racquet Club of the South, the Norcross tennis academy where de Villiers is co-owner. Text messages during January’s Australian Open confirmed their feelings for each other, and they’d since become constant companions and practice partners. “Austin’s a good guy, real laid-back,” John Oudin says. “It’s nice for her to have a peer around, since Brian can wear her down a little.”

From the start of her match against Pavlyuchenkova, Melanie gave her family plenty to cheer about. She netted the first eleven points, quick on her feet despite the tape on her left thigh for a muscle strain. Two years before, at this same venue, the Russian had dispatched Melanie 6-2, 6-2 during U.S. Open juniors. Today, Melanie turned the tables, retrieving every ball and responding with brutal drop shots and down-the-line winners. After just ten minutes the five-nine Russian was winded. “You can already hear her breathing,” Austin said to de Villiers. In the hush before Pavlyuchenkova’s serves, Melanie would look down at her racket, compulsively adjusting the strings. The sound of the plucking traveled high into the stands.

The first set took just twenty-eight minutes, 6-1 to the girl in the hot pink shoes with “Believe” etched in tiny letters. Before game two of the second set, Pavlyuchenkova unwrapped a new racket as if to change her luck, but she botched two break opportunities and lost the game on an ace. The match was over, though it took another six games to make it official. Katherine held her camera phone up as Melanie signed autographs for clamoring kids and sent a celebratory ball soaring into the stands.

* * *

De Villiers has coached Melanie since she was nine, when the twins showed up at Sandy Springs’ Riverside Club hoisting Prince rackets as big as they were. A top player in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in his youth, the fifty-one-year-old de Villiers served in the country’s paramilitary police force before attending Central Texas College on a tennis scholarship. Unable to relate to what he calls “a bunch of spoiled little boys,” he dropped out and spent the early eighties traveling Europe, teaching and playing where he could and, when money ran out, sleeping in a tent on the side of the courts. The stripped-down existence influenced his coaching style: direct, exacting, intolerant of whining—in other words, perfect for the intense little girl who’d come under his tutelage. Recalls de Villiers, “When they’re that young, you never really know if they have the tools. But for a nine-, ten-year-old she was very focused. And she hated to lose.”

Did she. Robertson, Melanie’s grandmother, remembers one Fourth of July when her granddaughter decorated a hat for a block party. The hats were to be judged; a winner declared. “When she lost, she smiled, and I didn’t think it mattered,” says Robertson. “Then she walked into the kitchen, whipped that hat off, and stomped on it.”

In Melanie, de Villiers saw an ideal pupil. “Everyone at that age says they want to be a pro,” he says. “The difference [with her] was I said, ‘This is what you have to do; are you willing to do it?’ and she said, ‘Yeah.’” He made her get up early. He monitored her diet, conquering temptations of ice cream and brownies. He took her to the track for 400s, and to Columns Drive for long runs along the river. Hardest of all, he insisted on playing her up. As a nine-year-old she faced twelve-year-olds, and when she got comfortable he moved her up again. “I had to learn that losing helped me get better, and to move on quickly,” Melanie says.

De Villiers developed everything about Melanie’s game, from her running mechanics to the powerful forehand that anchors her play. What didn’t need developing was her passion for the sport. The kid was smitten. “At tournaments you’d have to drag her off the court,” says her mother. “She’d stay and watch friends’ matches. She’d stay all day.” Even now, amid the grueling schedule of professional tournaments, Melanie will find a few hours to take in a Federer or Williams match, and she’ll unwind in her hotel room by watching night matches on TV.

* * *

A few hours after defeating Pavlyuchenkova, Melanie sat with her family in the Grandstand, munching popcorn and scoping out which player would be her second-round opponent. On the court, number four seed Elena Dementieva was dismantling France’s Camille Pin. The singles gold medalist in Beijing, Dementieva was coming off strong showings at summer tournaments and was overdue for her first Grand Slam title. Loping across the court, the five-foot-eleven Russian appeared as a coil of muscle ready to spring open any moment, like the tightly wound bun in her hair. Even on the run she was in control. “She’s so graceful,” Melanie murmured.

To someone else in that situation, Melanie’s first-round triumph may have seemed suddenly dimmer, her prospects dampened. But she’d defeated a top ten player before, and flitting through her mind were other thoughts. Her backhand is better than her forehand. She likes going cross-court. I’ll have to put it deep. I’ll have to be patient. Midway through the match, she and de Villiers had seen enough. They rose from their seats, bound for the gym.

* * *

You could point to two breakthroughs that paved the way for Melanie’s pivotal performance at Wimbledon. The first came a week before seventh grade, when she dropped out of Eastside Christian School and enrolled in the online Keystone School. With the demands of tournament travel, sixth grade had been a challenge. “A lot of times she had to turn in homework before she left, so we’d be up late trying to finish it, and then we’d get to the tournament and she was exhausted,” says Leslie, who at the time was ambivalent about the decision. There was the matter of Melanie’s education, and of camaraderie, and splitting up the girls. Melanie was the maternal one. Would her twin be okay on her own?

“Seventh grade was the worst year I ever had,” says Katherine. “I wouldn’t say it was a separation, because there was never a point where we were the same, but I became a lot more independent.” But truly, it was a separation. As Melanie improved, she stayed at tournaments longer. When she was home, she spent her days at Riverside. Her inner circle became her tennis buddies, Katherine’s her schoolmates. “That was when I decided, ‘This is what I want,’” says Melanie. “If I was going to homeschool, I was going to try to go pro for sure.”

The International Tennis Federation runs the premiere under-eighteen circuit in the world. Melanie won her share of ITF matches as a young teen, but she didn’t win her first tournament until two and a half years ago, just shy of her sixteenth birthday. That victory kicked off five in a row, in fact, starting at the University of Kentucky—an outcome so unexpected de Villiers wasn’t there to witness it—and ending in the finals of the Orange Bowl, where she nearly captured her sixth title. Her junior ranking skyrocketed from ninety to two. The following summer, she earned her first pro title, again in Kentucky, again without de Villiers.

That Melanie captured her first major titles without a coach on hand is unsurprising to those who know her. Her on-court successes or failures are wholly personal—a battle between her and the girl across the net, and, more often, a battle within. After that first ITF victory, her next two dozen opponents fell like dominoes. “It was like I didn’t know how to lose. I’d be down a set, a break, and still be confident I could come back and win,” she recalls. “It’s always been about confidence, about believing in myself.”

* * *

The day Melanie beat Dementieva was a scorcher, the 23,000 seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium a giant funnel for the sun. In the center, on a glowing patch of blue DecoTurf, a desperate struggle was playing out. Few showed up expecting a real contest. The stadium wasn’t even full. But Melanie was keeping it close, chasing down hard-to-reach balls and knocking back forehand winners. She lost the first set but went up 4-1 in the second. Before long, a crowd had gathered outside Ashe to watch a Jumbotron broadcast of the second-round match. Many had hurried off from other matches when they saw the score and a number six pop up next to the unusual five-letter name. Had Oudin really taken the second set?

Sure, Melanie was blond-haired and blue-eyed and button-cute. But there was something animalistic in the way she played—not only in the way she hunted down shots but in the rawness of her desire. “Come on!” she would yell, pumping her fist. Dementieva, so unflappable in her first-round match, seemed cowed. By the third set, it was Melanie’s match to lose. And with a 3-1 lead, it didn’t look like she would—until, after a missed first serve in the fifth game, she paused, hunched forward, and started to cry.

A collective “oh” went through the stands. De Villiers, Melanie’s mom, and Austin held their breath. “It’s hurting her when she lands,” said Austin, referring to Melanie’s taped thigh. But it was more than that, and de Villiers knew it. The significance of the moment had touched her. This was where experience counted. “Come on, Mel Mel,” he whispered. And after a moment, Melanie repositioned herself at the service line, gave a last inscrutable look at the ball in her hand, and tossed it in the air.

* * *

At five games to three, Melanie finished Dementieva with a decisive serve on third match point. Afterward, Dementieva was more generous than Jankovic had been, saying Melanie had “great variety to her game.” But Melanie’s run was just beginning—and so was the media’s infatuation with her, from her Georgia roots to the “Believe” sneakers. In the next round, Melanie unraveled Maria Sharapova, who suffered from twenty-one double faults and an uncharacteristic lack of crowd support. America preferred its own Cinderella to the winsome Russian. Against power-serving Nadia Petrova, another tall Russian, Melanie recovered from a 1-6 first set to take the second in a tie-break and eventually send Petrova slamming her racket to the ground.

Finally, she fell in the quarterfinals to Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, whose restrained approach flummoxed her. Wozniacki sensed the crowd’s disappointment, telling them, “I’m sorry I won against Melanie today. I know many of you guys wanted her to win.” The nineteen-year-old’s playing style was, in many ways, similar to Melanie’s—one of counterpunching and retrieving, of keeping the ball in play and striking whenever there was an opening. This style can be highly effective against power hitters, whose force can be directed back at them, but it’s trickier against fellow counterpunchers, as ESPN tennis commentator Chris Fowler points out. “Counterpunchers have a hard time when someone gives them back shots that have no pace and are not aggressive,” Fowler says. “You see many players on the men’s and women’s side who have a hard time with that.” But other aspects of Melanie’s game impressed him. “She has some things you cannot coach or teach, and that’s how to fight and compete and not get down on herself and hang in there. Boy, it’s something that a lot of people who maybe have more natural talent will never have.”

After the Open, Melanie appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Tory Burch at Phipps Plaza outfitted her. She attended Fashion’s Night Out in New York City and met Justin Timberlake and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. At home, she threw out the first pitch at a Braves game and received a Falcons jersey from Arthur Blank. And she nabbed endorsement deals with AirTran and Massachusetts data-mining firm BackOffice Associates. Sam Duvall, Melanie’s agent with Blue Entertainment Sports Television, says that despite the demand for his client, he’s felt little urgency to strike while the iron’s hot, figuring it won’t cool down anytime soon. “It’s like I told people after Wimbledon,” he says. “I said, ‘Okay, chill out, she’s young and we’re going to go slow.’ If I thought it was a fluke I’d say we have to capitalize now. But not only did she repeat what she did, she did it on a bigger stage against finer opponents.”

At times, the attention has been too much. During a photo shoot in Times Square, Melanie stood by as a pair of photographers got in a shoving match; fans banged on the car windows as she hurried off. And the parting blow: Hours after her loss to Wozniacki, Sports Illustrated revealed why her parents sat apart during matches. A year before, her father filed for divorce from her mother on grounds that she’d had an affair with de Villiers (her mother denied it; proceedings are ongoing). It was a sour ending to her magical story, and Melanie was glad for Austin’s presence. “Just hanging out with him, being able to talk like normal, was really good for me, because a lot was going on—like, a ton,” she says. “It was hard for everybody. I didn’t comprehend that happening at all, because for me it’s always been about the tennis. But it was good for me to go through because now I know it comes with it.”

* * *

Two months after the U.S. Open, Melanie and her family are home and trying to get back to normal, whatever that means now. Katherine, number one on her tennis team at the Walker School, is visiting colleges in hopes of earning a tennis scholarship. Bunny, also a promising player, has told her parents she wants to homeschool; they are weighing the decision. Next month, Melanie heads to Melbourne for the Australian Open, where expectations will be high. “From here it gets tougher,” says de Villiers. “People will want to beat her to prove a point. The higher you go, the bigger the target on your back.” But until then, she will relax and, for a few weeks anyway, live the life of a normal teenager, driving her 2005 Toyota 4Runner to the Avenue East Cobb and shopping at her favorite store, American Eagle. Her father intends to educate her about money, since she earned more than $350,000 this year in prize money alone. In April, he made her do her own taxes.

John Oudin is a little wistful about his daughters these days. He’s about to lose Katherine to college, and Melanie—Melanie was gone a long time ago. “I almost had to force her to have lunch with me when she came back from New York. It took about an hour, but all of a sudden we were talking again. She’s just so tunnel-vision on her direction right now,” he says. “I’m having a tough time getting used to the fact that she’s not ours anymore.”

It’s a reality Katherine accepted way back in seventh grade. Melanie’s home is on the tennis court. Her unforgettable runs at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, so startling to the rest of us, were to Melanie as comfortable and predestined as a homecoming. “Walking onto Arthur Ashe, I felt like I’d done it a thousand times, like I belonged there,” she says. “Seeing the whole crowd clapping for me, that’s what I worked for—that specific moment.”