FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Melanie Oudin turned her back to the court, faced the blue back wall and stared at her Wilson racquet as if searching the strings for solutions to the problems posed by Alona Bondarenko. Oudin mastered the art of the comeback during her rousing run to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals, but the resignation on her face in the final game today revealed a woman well aware Cinderella stories only come once in a career.
This time, the ferocious forehand was weighted with worry, the “courage” emblazoned on her shoes contrasted with the concern on her face and the crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium waited for a moment that never came.
The 29th-seeded Bondarenko ran off 10 consecutive points to send Oudin out of the US Open second round, 6-2, 7-5.
Oudin conceded she felt a bit overwhelmed by the occasion.
“I think the nerves got the best of me today a little bit, especially in the first set,” Oudin said. “Second set I started playing a lot better, making the points a little bit longer. But, yeah, the first set definitely like the crowd was like really, really loud. It was just like a lot. The second I got out there, I guess it kind of overwhelmed me a little bit, so.”
On match point, Oudin pushed a running backhand down the line wide, looked down with vacant eyes then walked to the net to shake hands as the crowd, which was nearly mute during the final two games, offered appreciative applause.
The 18-year-old Oudin, who made “believe” her personal mantra in etching the word on her adidas in playing with resolve and resilience at the ’09 Open, snapped a four-match losing streak in her first-round win over 143rd-ranked qualifier Olga Savchuk. But she has not beaten a top-30 ranked opponent since scoring three consecutive comeback wins over Russians Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova at the Open last year and could not hold off the 33rd-ranked Bondarenko today.
A nervous Oudin could not find her first serve at 5-all in the second set. She slapped her forehand into the net, netted a backhand down the line and missed another forehand before lofting a running lob long to drop serve at love.
Oudin won just eight of 25 points played on her second serve. Unable to break Bondarenko down in baseline rallies, Oudin began to play closer to the lines.
“I mean, it’s tough coming back, especially after like the US Open I had last year, coming back and expecting to do that well again,” Oudin said. “And, yes, the expectations for me I think from like the fans were extremely high. You could tell by the crowd. Even the second I walked out there, people like expected me to win again like last year.”
Tennis is all about adjustments and opponents have learned that Oudin thrives off pace, particularly to her forehand. She has worked with coach Brian de Villiers to move forward in the court on her terms, but at 5-feet-6 Oudin does not have a lot of sting on her serve and her reach can be exposed when opponents draw her into net with short slices.
Oudin is at her best when she’s running around her backhand and hammering her favored forehand, but Bondarenko refused to let Oudin find her comfort zone in the final stages of the match.
The match showed Oudin’s game is still very much a work in progress and she views every match as another credit course on the learning curve that is the pro circuit.
Five minutes after her post-match press conference concluded, a relieved Oudin was on the receiving end of a hug from her younger brother as they walked down the hallway inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I guess I’m a little tiny bit relieved now,” Ouudin said. “I can kind of start over, I guess like start over from all the expectations from like last year. And now I can just go out and hopefully do really well the rest of the year and keep working hard.”
Her US Open dream may be over for this year, but Oudin is still part of the tournament, playing mixed doubles with Ryan Harrison.
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.