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Melanie Oudin is the face of a new tennis generation

TENNIS / WIMBLEDON

Oudin, 17, grew up watching Venus and Serena Williams play in the late 1990s. The Atlanta native defeated former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic to advance to the fourth round at Wimbledon.

June 28, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — For those who dread the aging process, here's harrowing news: There's somebody in the final 16 of Wimbledon who harvested the inspiration to play tennis partly from turning on the TV as a 9-year-old in Atlanta and seeing Venus and Serena Williams play Wimbledon.

"Mom," she said. "I really, really want to play there one day."

Hang on to your facial creams, for seemingly not so long after the Williams sisters turned up as phenomena -- well, it was the late 1990s -- here comes another American tennis generation. It might prove strong, it might prove weak, but on this silent Sunday at the All England Club, it takes the form of Melanie Oudin.

It takes the form of a 17-year-old, 5-foot-6, home-schooled, blond tennis player who had not won a Grand Slam match before this, but suddenly has torn through three qualifying matches, then three main-draw wins over players ranked No. 28, No. 74 and No. -- whew -- 6.

"I was just thinking that she was any other player and this was any other match and I was at any other tournament," she said of Jelena Jankovic, the 2008 U.S. Open finalist, former No. 1 player and famous Serbian.

Because she outlasted Jankovic by 6-7 (8), 7-5, 6-2, the final 16 will include Oudin, younger by one minute of two fraternal-twin sisters, former hitter of thousands of balls against the family's garage door, a voracious practicer who'd sob when rain would foil practice and somebody who plotted her path carefully at the wise young age of 9, choosing home-schooling because it enabled her to practice five hours per day.

"I've always known what I wanted and then gone for it," she said as she strode across the Wimbledon grounds toward a broadcast interview.

That final 16 will include eight women who did their advancing on Saturday. It will include Venus Williams, the one-woman tradition of Centre Court elegance who won again Saturday and said, "It definitely feels really, really natural when I'm out there." It will include No. 1 Dinara Safina, the rising Dane Caroline Wozniacki and the No. 14-ranked former top-10 presence Agnieszka Radwanska.

It will include Amelie Mauresmo, the 2006 Wimbledon champion and former No. 1 who has advanced so quietly here it seems she might have just materialized in the fourth round. It will include the 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who has a starry match with Venus Williams. It will not include the recent French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who looked sort of lost Saturday in bowing out to 19-year-old Sabine Lisicki of Germany.

And it will include the No. 124-ranked Oudin, who will play Radwanska, whose only recollection of Oudin comes from the Orange Bowl junior tournament where, "I mean, I was just practicing there, but my sister was playing actually against her," Radwanska said. "I think, semis or quarterfinal, I don't know. I just saw her once. She was playing against my sister. That was it."

Williams does know Oudin, but mostly as a Federation Cup teammate during Oudin's excellent junior days, enough that Williams found her "just so enthusiastic about tennis and about life. Very well-adjusted."

It's some daydream story, and it intensified on a hot day when Oudin used her foremost trait -- speed -- to prove impenetrable to Jankovic. "She's, you know, a short girl, but she moves very well," said Jankovic, who opined that Oudin has no real weapons but said, "She made me run and she made me hit a lot of balls every point, and I just couldn't do it."

In so doing, Oudin plied the possibilities she took from her idol, Justine Henin, who battled the trees from 5-foot-5 3/4 and won seven Grand Slams. "She's proven that you don't have to be 6 feet tall to be No. 1 in the world and win so many Grand Slams," Oudin said. "Her footwork is amazing."

While Jankovic fretted and called twice for the trainer, Oudin exhibited a calm that's trademark, according to her coach Brian de Villiers, a native Zimbabwean and naturalized American who has coached Oudin since age 9. "She's just a very bubbly, nice kid," de Villiers said, "and she never gets mad on the court or bangs her racquet."

Here she stands, four rounds beyond her goal of simply qualifying, and only eight years after watching Venus and Serena way, way back at the turn of the century.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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