No-fear attitude propels Oudin to win

9/5/2009 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- During an awkward silence, one of those awkward silences that sometimes descend on cocktail parties, a singular voice came whistling out of the upper deck at Arthur Ashe Stadium:

"Melanie, you can do this!"

This unabashed, unsolicited support came with American Melanie Oudin leading Elena Dementieva, one of the pre-tournament favorites, 2-0 in the third set. Never mind that 17-year-olds are not supposed to even reach the third set against No. 4 seeds.

Well, after some serving hiccups that have become ubiquitous in today's women's game, Oudin actually did do it. She stunned Dementieva 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 on Thursday to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open.

"The whole thing was just amazing," said Oudin afterward, speaking as swiftly and breathlessly as you might expect under the circumstances. "I can't believe I won."

Neither could anyone else. It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of this upset authored by the 5-foot-6 athlete from Marietta, Ga.

Dementieva came in as one of the hottest players on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, having won the most recent title in Toronto -- beating Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the process -- and previously reaching the semifinals in Wimbledon, Stanford and Cincinnati.

Oudin, who was ranked No. 178 last year, played her way into the fourth round at Wimbledon but had lost four of her past five matches.

As a result of Oudin's upset, the anticipated third-round dream clash between the Russian baselining queens, Dementieva and Sharapova, will not come to pass. Instead, Oudin -- her pink adidas shoes being the modern-day version of ruby slippers -- will play the winner of Thursday night's match between Sharapova and another 17-year-old American, Christina McHale.

When she selected Oudin earlier this year for Fed Cup duty, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez cited two chief attributes for picking the young player: 1) tenacity and, 2) the intuitive ability to build points. Both were on display Thursday.

There will be a lot of numbers thrown around in the wake of this match, but here are the most telling: Oudin now has played 19 matches this year that have gone the maximum-allowable three sets. She has won 15 of them.

On a suggestion from her boyfriend, Austin Smith, Oudin had a word written on the back of her shoes: BELIEVE.

"It seems to fit me well," she said. "I played with no fear today.

"It's believing that I can beat these girls and hang in there with them. That's how I won -- I believed I could do it."

When Oudin lost the first two points of the third set on her serve, it looked like the nerves had finally struck. But slowly, steadily, she found equilibrium. Dementieva had a big edge in power, but Oudin patiently would manage to work the point to the extent she could finish it with a well-placed forehand or a sharply angled backhand.

In the end, Oudin's serve was slightly better. In a match that featured an astounding 13 breaks of serve, she managed to prevail with a 7-6 margin. It was a hold at 5-3 that closed the deal.

Oudin won the first three points of the game, then watched as Dementieva, ever the pro, knocked off two winners. Oudin knew she needed a big serve and she got one -- Dementieva tried a one-hand stretching backhand, but the ball found the net. Oudin held both arms aloft and slowly spun to take in the crowd's hearty applause.

All of this was accomplished despite a balky left thigh, which was strained coming in and aggravated by the tension of the occasion. Oudin requested the trainer twice and had the offending muscles wrapped more tightly. She downplayed the injury, saying she didn't think it would affect her next match.

In retrospect, perhaps this shouldn't have been surprising. When Oudin took on No. 6-ranked Jelena Jankovic in the third round at Wimbledon, she didn't blink. The No. 4 player didn't scare her, either. In fact, her non-defeatist attitude is reminiscent of the modus operandi of the only two Americans ahead of her in the rankings, Serena and Venus Williams.

Oudin, currently No. 70, grew up idolizing Justine Henin. Henin was a small player in a big women's game and she got by on guile and guts. Sound familiar?

"She proved that you don't have to be 6-foot-something to be No. 1 in the world," Oudin said. "The way she plays, the way she moves, the way she uses all different shots and uses the entire court with her drop shot and her angles -- she figures out a way to take down these players that overpower her with her variety and her movement."

There is also a hint of Martina Hingis in Oudin's game. She's only 17, though, and like Hingis her serve needs some more pop. She averaged an anemic 95 miles an hour on her first serve and only 78 on her second.

Remember the name -- it's pronounced OO-Dan.

"She was playing very aggressively," Dementieva said, "really enjoying this atmosphere, the crowd support and really going for winners.

"So it's just the beginning, but it looks like she has a good future."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.