by Joel Drucker (Tennis One)
Melanie Oudin's US Open run triggers one of my favorite questions: What is an athlete? I'll admit I too have been massively surprised by her success here in New York. Two years ago I watched her play the USTA Girls 18s Championship – and not win the tournament. For reasons I didn't quite grasp, she soon turned pro, and when I saw her play at the French Open in 2008, I still thought Oudin was far from the big leagues. Even when Oudin beat Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon this past summer, I chalked that off as one-off, the kind of odd win that can happen most likely on grass.
Melanie Oudin took out four Russians in the first four rounds – Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, and Nadia Petrova.
But the point here isn't to see why or why not it's worthy to believe in Melanie Oudin and assess her like some kind of newly-minted corporation in hopes of determining her future value. If covering the likes of Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi has taught me anything it's the danger of predictions.
Instead, back to the question: What is an athlete?
So often in the world of contemporary tennis, in our sport's eagerness to legitimize itself in comparison to such longstanding, familiar sports as basketball and football, athleticism has been defined by obvious, crude and visceral notions as physical size, raw strength, and foot speed.
Oudin is one of the cleanest hitters on the tour, because she gets herself into great position to strike the ball. Check out her footwork between strokes.
And yet surely we know that this is a game of skill, a sport predicated on timing, footwork – which is very different than foot speed – and two deeper intangibles, problem-solving and mental toughness.
Oudin says she's inspired by Justine Henin. Like Oudin, Henin was far smaller than many of her contemporaries. Unlike Oudin, Henin apparently compensated for her alleged lack of physical assets with a full spectrum of tools, most notably with her beautiful one-handed backhand.
But now, having seen Oudin, I'm rethinking this whole notion of the smaller player. I've come to see that Henin's real genius went beyond her backhand, her forehand or any other single shot. And if Oudin helped me revisit Henin (as well as Martina Hingis), then Henin has given me a richer grasp of Oudin. There is a quality of craftsmanship to Oudin and Henin that's far more nuanced than many current players.
It's fascinating to see how in her first three rounds Oudin beat a trio of Russians – that is, players who each pretty much play a straightforward, concussive baseline game predicated on hitting just about every ball with the same pace, spin, and shape. This holds true even for Maria Sharapova, a player who has lived in the US since the age of seven.
Oudin knows when to to go for the lines and, unlike many of the women, she can attack the net and put away a volley.
Another resourceful player, Michael Chang, once told me, "Anyone can bang the ball around. But start doing different things – rolling it high and deep, then low and short – and then you really see who the tennis player is."
And by extension, do you also see the athlete? How do we begin to determine who is necessarily a better athlete, Dementieva, Sharapova, or Oudin?
Russian women pervade professional tennis. I've heard repeatedly how many have been trained for months as children by merely mimicking technique, that a great deal of their formative stages are spent pondering stroke production – far more than playing practice matches versus tons of different players. To me this is a tragedy; and often even at the highest levels what's revealed is a profound tone-deafness to how the game is played – and what it takes to compete effectively.
Oudin has shown that tennis is something other than merely hitting one ball after another. Her game reveals exceptional purpose, a notion that every ball she strikes is intended to have its own particular effect in pursuit of winning the point – something other than to merely brutalize an opponent. In the opening game of the third set versus Sharapova, Oudin broke serve with a well-placed drop shot. When it came time to stay consistent and strike the ball deep with plenty of margin, Oudin did just that. When there were moments where striking big was viable, Oudin went for the lines.
Oudin reminds me of Tracy Austin. Like Oudin, Austin's technique, stroke production, footwork, and balance was exemplary.
She most of all reminds me of Tracy Austin. You might well recall Austin as a precocious champion who for a time was in the mix with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova but whose career was ended by injuries. Like Oudin, Austin's technique – stroke production, footwork, balance – was exemplary. Austin too was exceptionally gritty – always using her head to figure out ways to take charge of a match. Most of all, both share a dialed-in quality, an idea that a tennis match is not just a showcase of physical prowess but a sustained, methodical, rational, patient, cognitive, and long-term engagement.
Which once again begs the question: What is an athlete?
Having watched Oudin study and apply herself in several situations, I toss a question to teaching professionals: Why aren't more players taught to play the game this way? What goes on in those clinics, in those camps and tennis centers in Florida and Russia, where players gather in lines and are told to strike it hard and big? Must you necessarily have the gumption of a smaller player like Oudin, Henin, Hingis, and Austin to see the court more as chess than checkers?