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Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Oudin's mettle made her fan favorite

It's not hard to grasp the appeal of Melanie Oudin. She is a young, cute, undersized underdog who exudes all-American charisma from the tip of her blond ponytail down to the soles of her customized tennis shoes, inscribed with her mantra "Believe." In her dream U.S. Open run, which ended in Wednesday's quarterfinals, Oudin frustrated and flummoxed a series of formidable Russian opponents, and celebrated each successive victory with a wide-eyed, I-can't-believe-it's-happening-to-me expression and a charming mixture of giddiness and euphoric tears that has endeared her to her rapturous (and rapidly growing) fan base.

But part of what makes Oudin a compelling character is an attribute that has nothing to do with age or cosmetics or Southern roots or baseball caps: It's her pluck. In her second-, third- and fourth-round matches, she dropped the first set to her seeded Russian opponent before swinging her way back into contention. In the round of 16, Oudin lost the first set to No. 13 Nadia Petrova by the dismal score of 6-1, and was down a break in the second before she started playing more aggressively -- and Petrova imploded.

"Oudin was down 6-1, 4-3, 40-15, and you think she's in trouble," Brad Gilbert says of that fourth-round battle. "But you thought she was in trouble at least three different times in this tournament. She reminds me a little of Lleyton Hewitt: She's got a lot of fight."

Oudin may have been overwhelmed by Petrova's power in the first set, but she wasn't overwhelmed by the occasion. That innate mental fortitude is a rare gift in today's women's game, where poise is at a premium and on-court meltdowns occur as frequently as injury timeouts. (Top-10 players Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva, both of whom have been reduced to tears during Grand Slam matches this season, are prime exhibits of emotional fragility.)

Though gutsiness is an intangible attribute, it's still a weapon for Oudin, as valuable as her solid groundstrokes and her agility. Tracy Austin, who was 16 -- a year younger than Oudin is now -- when she became the youngest U.S. Open singles champion in history in 1979, believes that the contrast between Petrova's and Oudin's body language is an indication of two dramatically different mental states.

"Petrova gets negative and down on herself," Austin says. "She has gotten better, but it's still her Achilles' heel and she obviously hasn't been able to overcome that completely. Melanie has that mental toughness. That's a strength -- the ability to bounce back and stay in the moment."

Austin herself exhibited the ability to bounce back in winning her second U.S. Open title in 1981. After losing the first set 6-1 to Martina Navratilova in 25 minutes -- "It felt like four," Austin says -- the American gathered herself and took the next two sets in tiebreakers.

"I was thinking, 'Martina just killed me 6-1, and I've got to win two sets and she's playing better than I am, she's handling the wind better than I am,'" Austin recalls. "So I just took one point at a time, concentrated on my passing shots, and Martina got a little nervous while I stayed sturdy mentally and in that second set. I won it 7-6, and then it was up for grabs. So somehow I snuck my way back into the match."

Gilbert says that losing the first set badly can sometimes exact a smaller emotional toll than getting blown out -- and can inspire an essential change in tactics. "No player intentionally wants to be down a set 6-1," he said. "But sometimes you lose a first set so bad you start to relax. And if you lose the set 6-1 or 6-2, you're like 'Oh shucks, I better change something.'"

At the 1987 Open, it was more than a strategy shift that helped Gilbert come back from two sets down to beat Boris Becker, then a two-time Wimbledon champion, in the fourth round. In what he calls one of the three best moments in his career, Gilbert ousted Becker 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 6-1, in a late-night marathon on the Grandstand.

"I got a huge lift in support from the crowd, spilling over from Center Court [Louis Armstrong] and filling up my court. I felt like, 'God, I've never had the crowd rooting for me like this before in my whole career, no way am I going to let them down.'"

Oudin's run, of course, was fueled by the crowd support. But her popularity among the Arthur Ashe stadium set derives not just from the fact that she's an American or an underdog or a blonde. New Yorkers like to root for someone who shows grit and moxie -- and unlike many of her more accomplished peers, Oudin does.