- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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For a few perilous hours earlier this month, the fate of the United States' Fed Cup team rested on the racket of a 17-year-old.
Trailing Argentina 1-2, the U.S. needed a victory from Melanie Oudin over Betina Jozami to stay alive in a first-round tie in Surprise, Ariz. Oudin's thirtysomething teammates -- Jill Craybas (34), Liezel Huber (32) and Julie Ditty (30) -- could do nothing to help her.
"I'm thinking, 'If I lose, the United States loses,'" Oudin said Monday from her home in Marietta, Ga. "Basically, it's up to me, and that's a lot of pressure."
Oudin (pronounced oo-DAN) played the first set like someone feeling that overwhelming pressure of the moment, winning only two of eight games. But then a funny thing happened. Actually, Oudin happened.
"I kept telling myself after that first set that this was just another match, another match against another girl," Oudin said. "The less I thought about the circumstances, the better I played."
Oudin blasted Jozami off the court in the last two sets, 6-1, 6-2, to even the tie at 2-all. And then Huber and Ditty prevailed in doubles to send the U.S. to the semifinals against the Czech Republic in April.
"I had an idea she'd come through in that match," said Mary Joe Fernandez, the U.S. team captain. "When she lost her [first] match to [Gisela] Dulko, she got really upset. She wasn't expected to win, but immediately afterward she said, 'I'd like to go hit some balls to get ready for tomorrow.' That kind of determination is good to see from a young player."
How did it all come down to Oudin, who turned professional only a year ago? For a decade, women's tennis in America has been largely about Serena and Venus Williams. They have won 17 majors between them and are ranked No. 1 (Serena) and No. 5 (Venus) in the world. In recent years they often were joined by Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati in the top 10, but those players have drifted from the scene. It might seem difficult to believe, but only two other U.S. women are ranked among the top 100. Can you name them?
The answers: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, at No. 38, and the No. 89-ranked Craybas. That's it. Only two women under the age of 20 are among America's top 10 players -- 19-year-old Alexa Glatch (ranked No. 139 in the world) and Oudin (No. 145).
When the Williams sisters declined Fernandez's invitation to play the Fed Cup, she turned to Mattek-Sands, who was forced to pass when she was injured. Fernandez worked her way down the depth chart and followed Oudin's qualifying matches at the Australian Open -- she won all three to reach the main draw.
"I was impressed with her attitude, so positive," Fernandez said. "At 17, she's really young by today's standards, but she exhibits a lot of maturity. You couldn't tell by her body language whether she was winning or losing. That's unusual for someone that age."
After talking it over with USTA coaches, Fernandez selected Oudin as the No. 2 singles player behind Craybas.
"I was the only American who qualified at the Australian Open," Oudin said. "But I was still shocked when I got the e-mail."
And whom did Oudin have to play two weeks later in the first round at Memphis? Fed Cup teammate Craybas.
"We gave each other a hug the first time we saw each other," Oudin said. "It was totally fine. We were cool."
Until Oudin beat Craybas in three sets. It was her best win of the year and recalled her surprise victory over No. 26 Sybille Bammer in November in Quebec, where she reached the quarterfinals before losing to Mattek-Sands.
Oudin turned professional in February 2008, but as a 16-year-old was permitted to play only 13 professional events last season. She chose to play in the junior draw of the four Grand Slam events and reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and was the No. 1 seed at Wimbledon.
This year, her first full-time season on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, Oudin is restricted to 17 events, so she has done some creative scheduling. The Fed Cup doesn't count toward the total; neither do majors if she qualifies her way into the main draw, as she did in Australia. She requested a wild card into the upcoming tournament in Indian Wells and will attempt to qualify in Miami. She'll go through qualifying at Roland Garros and Wimbledon with the goal of lifting her ranking into the top 100 in time to gain direct admission into the U.S. Open's main draw. A year from now, she'd like to be in the top 50.
Ask her whose game she identifies with, and Oudin quickly offers her idol, Justine Henin. Oudin, like Henin, is about 5-foot-5 and survives on intelligence in a world of
bigger, stronger women.
"She knows how to win, how to compete really well, but she's not that big," Fernandez said. "Once she gets hold of a point, she pretty much knows what to do, but I'd like to see her develop a better serve."
Said Oudin, "That's probably the biggest thing. I'm never going to have a lot of aces, but I can improve my placement and percentages. I'd also like to make my backhand more of a weapon. My forehand is definitely my strength."
Oudin spent 2008 working with Brian de Villiers but is now coached by Grant Stafford, a former top-100 player from South Africa.
She understands that, despite her age, there is a sense of urgency.
"Last year was a learning year for me," Oudin said. "This is the year I need to make my move. I know that. This is the year I need to do something, make a name for myself.
"I know there are so many things in my game that I can improve. I'm looking forward to the places I can go."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.