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.