Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Next Big Thing

There have been plenty of tennis players that I've wished, dreamed and predicted big things of and for.

There was the resilient Mexican Melissa Torres who made noise at her home tournament over 18 months ago. Then there was Michelle Larcher de Brito, the young Portuguese star who was Jennifer Capriati, reincarnated at the Sony Ericcson Open last March.

Or more recently, Marina Erakovic, Laura Robson, Ernests Gulbis and a host of others.

So don't be surprised that I'm writing about a brand-new up-and-comer. And don't be surprised if she doesn't exactly win the US Open in the next two years, either. But the thing about sports writing is this: you must take chances on certain players. There will be future champions, there will be breakthrough stories. Perhaps today's qualifier is tomorrow's champion... you just never know.

The girl is Melanie Oudin. She's not much different from the rest of the players I've written about on here, except one minor detail: she's American. Actually, let's call that detail major, not minor. Why? You ask. This is why: separate from the Williams sisters, there have been zero American grand slam champions in the last five years. Yes, zero.

Oudin may not be Venus or Serena, but this past week she had her first big pro breakthrough, winning two matches at the Tier III Bell Challenge in Quebec City, which comes at the tail-end of a successful year for the 17-year-old.

(Oudin has a powerful baseline game. But what junior player doesn't these day? Photo by kpessa via Flickr.)

Successful may be an understatement, winning 28 matches - mostly at small, American challenger tournaments - and losing in the first round of just two pro events: Miami and the US Open. In this year, she's also won this country's most prestigious junior tournament, the Easter Bowl, and recorded wins over eight Top 200 players.

But what does all mean for Oudin? It means that she, along with US Open junior champion Coco Vandeweghe are the future of American girls tennis, at least for now. ESPN The Magazine made her a part of their NEXT campaign this past year, and she's one of a handful of players that the USTA has put mega bucks behind to help further her individual career.

But considering the Monique Vieles, Ashley Harkleroads, and Bethanie Matteks (who beat her this week) before her, it's unlikely that Oudin will have any sort of a lasting career - much less reach the No. 1 world ranking as she hopes to do. Sans the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, just three Americans stand inside the Top 100 on this week's rankings, and at the US Open, (without the Williams and Davenport) the group of starts and stripes went a dismal 1-12.

So what makes Oudin different? Different than Alexa Glatch or Vania King or Ashe Rolle or Mashona Washington, you might wonder. It's her slow, steady, mature and calculated rise to the pro tennis ranks that gives her an edge. At the age of 17, she hasn't been catapulted onto the international stage, but rather allowed to take on each level of tennis - from regional to national to international - and let her game adjust. It's not a guarantee by any means, but it's an approach that could benefit in the long run.

You might call it the Anti-Williams approach, and though there have been endless critics of what the two sisters have done, they've made it all right. So is Oudin destined for a crash?

Or is she the next big thing?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Next big thing? Well, here in Adelaide South Australia, Australia, there is a 14 year old kid by the name of Kelly Borholm. 5ft 11in, blonde, gorgeous and a game to die for. Her parents have taken a wait and see approach; that is, they've let her develop at her own pace, haven't been pushy, and the results are beginning to show.

Someone to look out for.