Oudin fearless of opponents, big stage
NEW YORK -- If only Maria Sharapova could design a shoulder joint with the style and functionality of the work of Frank Gehry, the famous architect she so admires.
Sharapova did the next best thing by ordering up the Gehry-inspired tennis dress she has worn in two uneventful early-round wins at the U.S. Open. Although her retooled serve is still under construction and Sharapova continues to struggle with double faults, she still carries a formidable game and presence onto the courts where, in 2006, she won the second of her three Grand Slam titles.
Her third-round opponent, giantess-killer Melanie Oudin, presents an interesting test. As the 29th-seeded Sharapova put it after cruising past Oudin's U.S. contemporary Christina McHale, Oudin is: "someone that's going to come out, and I'm sure she's gonna swing and have nothing to lose, which she doesn't." The two have never played, and pint-sized Oudin, listed at 5 feet, 6 inches tall, is a warrior in statuesque Sharapova's own mold.
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Oudin, three weeks shy of her 18th birthday, became the princess of Queens by upending fourth seed Elena Dementieva on Thursday. The Marietta, Ga., native has single-minded focus, a varied game patterned after another vertically challenged player, Justine Henin, and a high pain threshold cultivated in childhood.
"She was very accident-prone," her mother, Leslie Oudin, said while standing in the corridor outside the women's locker room at Arthur Ashe Stadium after her daughter's electrifying upset. "I used to call her 'the little bull.' She was all muscle, and wherever she went, things would get broken." Melanie emerged a moment later -- wearing the happily incredulous expression of a lottery winner -- and hugged her coach, her agent and her mom.
There's nothing random about the way Oudin breaks her opponents' serves, or the paths she chooses as she charges through a match. She takes the ball early, covers the court like a Zamboni, and is un-awed by big venues and big players. Among those she won over Thursday were Jim Courier, who said on his Twitter feed that he had reserved a seat on her bandwagon, and Andy Roddick. "I love watching her," Roddick said after his late-night victory Thursday. "I like the way she constructs points. It's not just, you know, hitting the ball to one spot. She kind of works the slice in there. She competes. She moves really well."
Execution will be critical against Sharapova, who's likely to be more assertive than fellow Russian Dementieva in clutch situations.
A left thigh injury kept Oudin, ranked No. 70 this week, out of action for two weeks before the Open. It still bothers her, especially when she lands on that leg after serving. When it buckled late in the match against Dementieva, Oudin grimaced and her eyes welled up; coach Brian de Villiers, watching from a courtside box, guessed she was at about 7 or 8 on a pain scale of 10. Oudin later said her already tight muscles were cramping with tension and effort.
But de Villiers said the girl he has coached since she was 9 has drilled herself into the kind of athlete who survives rather than succumbing. She didn't like doing off-court fitness work such as sprints and hill runs at first, "but now it's a little badge of honor for her," he said. "The other kids crumble, and she won't. It makes her feel good that she outlasts them."
Glamorous Sharapova is made to perform in New York, but she hasn't had much time on this stage since she raised the trophy three years ago at age 19 -- and in her excitement dislodged the cover and nearly clunked herself in the head. She was ousted in the second round the next year, then sat out 2008 while her surgically repaired shoulder was healing.
These years marked by adrenaline highs and frustrating lows can be accelerated ones for female tennis players. Sharapova sounded world-weary and not entirely facetious when she said, in her on-court interview after the McHale match, that, at 22, "You feel like you should retire."
Since her return in May during the clay-court season, Sharapova has gone deep in nearly every tournament she has entered, with the notable exception of Wimbledon, where Argentina's Gisela Dulko dispatched her in three sets. Meanwhile, Oudin was having a breakthrough run at the All-England Club, coming through qualifying rounds to reach the round of 16 and upending sixth seed Jelena Jankovic.
"I'm playing a lot better than I was when I first got back," said Sharapova, who recently has dared to go a little bigger on her serves, letting out the clutch and aiming for a higher first-serve percentage.
"You know, I feel like the belief in the game, the confidence is coming back," she said. "I think the one thing that I learned is, when you find yourself in the middle of the match, you kind of -- I don't know, your shot selection goes -- well, went haywire. And I think I've been able to get that back."
Dissecting the draw ahead of time, analysts circled a potential third-rounder between Sharapova and Dementieva -- a rematch of the Toronto final won by Dementieva -- as a welcome early marquee pairing. Oudin crashed the party, but that doesn't mean the showdown will be less scintillating.
Remember that Oudin's idol Henin owned Sharapova for a time before Sharapova beat her for the U.S. Open championship in New York. They also played one of the best women's matches of recent years for the WTA year-end title in 2007, perhaps the last time we were able to see Henin at her peak. A well-wielded chisel can be as mighty as a hammer.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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