Commentary

Are Levine, Oudin 'next' for the U.S.?

Originally Published: June 26, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- For quite some time, the future of American tennis has been now.

Predictably, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick and, yes, even Mardy Fish reached the third round here at the All England Club. This is standard stuff, for they have been America's elite players for many years. But the core, at least in terms of tennis years, is aging.

Less than two weeks ago, Venus turned 29. Serena and Fish are 27, and Roddick will join them in late August. In recent years, it has been fashionable to wonder when the next generation of stars is going to emerge.

Late Thursday, as dusk descended at Wimbledon, a few answers emerged. After winning her first career Grand Slam match, 17-year-old Melanie Oudin from Marietta, Ga., won her second, a muscular three-set triumph over Yaroslava Shvedova. A little earlier, 21-year-old Jesse Levine of Boca Raton, Fla., reached the third round for the first time in a Grand Slam event with a terrific five-set win over Pablo Cuevas.

Since both Levine and Oudin had to qualify to reach the main draw, they are a perfect 10-0 here this fortnight as they step onto the courts Saturday for their third-round matches. Not bad for two athletes who are on the diminutive side. Oudin is 5-foot-6, 130 pounds and Levine is generously listed at 5-9, 150.

"This is a good start for us," said Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's general manager of player development. "What I like about both of them is they work extremely hard and maximize their capabilities. Yes, they're small, but they're smart and they know how to play the game."

They're also the biggest underdogs.

Levine, at No. 133, is the lowest-ranked player left in the men's draw, by far; Juan Carlos Ferrero is next at No. 70, but he won the French Open in 2003. According to Britain's Sky Bet, Levine is 100-1 to escape his quarter of the draw that includes No. 3 seed Andy Murray.

Oudin, for her part, is the lowest-ranked woman still alive, at No. 124. But after beating No. 29 seed Sybille Bammer in first round and then Yaroslava Shvedova in second, she will soon be ranked in the 90s, a career best.

When you are young and inexperienced, a player must sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers when it comes to making the main draw of a major. Wild cards are the coin of the realm, but when the USTA offered her a spot in December in its mini-tournament for a berth in the Australian Open, she declined. Oudin said she'd rather try to qualify -- and she did.

"It was important to me that I earn it," she said Friday. "And it worked out."

And though Oudin lost her first-round match to Akgul Amanmuradova, she managed to qualify here and, because of her new ranking, will likely gain direct admission to the U.S. Open.

Levine was born in Ottawa, Canada, but matriculated in Florida as a teenager and spent time at the Nick Bollettieri Academy. He went to the same high school in Boca Raton that Roddick and Fish had attended. He was runner-up in the USTA playoff for the French Open wild card, losing to John Isner in the final. But when Isner was diagnosed with mononucleosis, Levine was already entered in qualifying at Roland Garros, so he couldn't accept the free berth. Levine failed to qualify.

But something about the grass at Wimbledon agrees with his game. Last year, Levine qualified here and beat Donald Young in the first round. He played in the first five-set match of his career, but lost to Jurgen Melzer in the second round. A year later, Levine knocked off No. 14 seed Marat Safin in the first round and then played his second five-setter. This time he prevailed.

What was the difference?

[+] EnlargeMelanie Oudin
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesMelanie Oudin will have her hands full with Jelena Jankovic on Saturday.

Say hello to Sgt. Maj. Keith Williams, who spent some 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He's worked with the USTA in training its young athletes and has spent the past two months traveling with Levine. His fitness level has increased but there has been a (minor) downside as well.

"We were running in the streets here in London, just one morning jogging, and he's singing Marine songs while we're running and everybody is staring at us," Levine said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, man, what is he doing?'

"And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, we're doing jumping jacks and push ups in the middle of the streets. But you know what? It's fun and I enjoy it."

After Wimbledon, Levine is heading to Camp Pendleton near San Diego for four or five days of intense training.

"Going to earn my dog tags," he said.

Levine, who had lost the only two ATP-level matches he had played this year, has suffered here only off the court. The hotel he booked for a few days after qualifying kicked him out. Now he's at a bed-and-breakfast in Wimbledon Village.

He could probably afford to buy a small flat for next year. Coming in, Levine had made only $36,539 this year, but he is already guaranteed prize money of 29,325 pounds -- the equivalent of $47,560

Neither Levine nor Oudin is expected to win on Saturday. Levine plays No. 19 seed Stanislas Wawrinka, who beat him a year ago at Indian Wells. Oudin faces No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic.

According to McEnroe, the biggest thing both players need to do is beef up their serves.

"It's nice to have a couple of youngsters still in it," McEnroe said. "We've got a long way to go, but it's a little bit of a pep in the step."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.