U.S. Open Pressure Builds for Oudin as Tennis Ranking Soars

Tennis Player Melanie Oudin
Melanie Oudin hits a backhand to Samantha Stosur of Australia during their match in the Mercury Insurance Open at La Costa Resort and Spa. Photographer: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Melanie Oudin is headed back to the U.S. Open with added weight on her shoulders and a warning: Don’t expect a replay of last year’s surprising run to the quarterfinals, no matter what her sneakers say.

A 17-year-old ranked 70th in 2009 and known then for the pink-and-yellow Adidas tennis shoes bearing the word “Believe,” Oudin now is 44th on the WTA Tour. She will be the second-highest ranked American woman in the field behind No. 4 Venus Williams when the season’s final Grand Slam tournament opens in New York on Aug. 30.

The rise has meant higher-ranked opponents and more pressure for the teenager from Marietta, Georgia, who has won one singles match in a major since her success last year helped produce three new sponsorship deals estimated to be worth more than $1 million.

“Almost every person in the United States expects me to win every single match I play, so, I mean, that’s kind of a little bit of pressure,” Oudin, who will be wearing new shoes bearing the word ”courage,” said at a news conference this month in Cincinnati. “Last year I was like the new kid in town, and you really don’t have any pressure when that happens.”

Oudin spoke after losing on Aug. 10 to Elena Vesnina of Russia 6-2, 6-3 in the first round of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open. She lost again in the first round at the Pilot Pen Tennis at Yale tournament in New Haven, Connecticut, on Aug. 23 as her season record dropped to 17-19.

Russian Streak

Quite a change from last year’s Open, where Oudin knocked out seeded Russians Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova and 2006 champion Maria Sharapova and became the youngest American woman to reach the tournament’s quarterfinals since Serena Williams in 1999. Her run was ended by eventual runner-up Caroline Wozniacki.

“I saw my draw before the tournament, and my coach looked at me and goes, ‘To win the U.S. Open, you have to beat like six Russians and a Williams sister,’” Oudin said. “It was like a joke. Playing Dementieva and then Sharapova, people I looked up to for so long, and being able to beat them was amazing, because I had no pressure on me, and I just went for it.”

Shortly before her quarterfinal against Wozniacki of Denmark, Oudin signed a sponsorship deal with data management company BackOffice Associates. AirTran Airways Inc. followed a week after the Open, while Virgin Mobile announced it would endorse Oudin in March.

Endorsement Value

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported on its website on Jan. 27 that the BackOffice deal was a “six-figure multiyear” endorsement. Sports Business Journal reported March 8 that the Virgin Mobile agreement was worth $500,000 and could rise to $2 million if she is successful.

Her agent, Sam Duvall, declined to comment on the value of her endorsements. BackOffice Associates Vice President of Global Marketing John Kelly, Virgin Mobile spokeswoman Corrine Nosal and AirTran spokeswoman Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas declined to disclose financial terms of their companies’ sponsorships.

“All the stars lined up for her at the U.S. Open,’” Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16W Marketing LLC sports consultants in Rutherford, New Jersey, said in an interview. “Her success came on home soil. I don’t think that if she did this in Australia, she would have had the public relations around her as she did at the U.S. Open. The timing was right for her personally, because U.S. women’s tennis -- besides Serena and Venus Williams -- is really not a lot to talk about.”

Women’s Rankings

Serena Williams, ranked No. 1 by the WTA, said last week that she was skipping the U.S. Open following surgery on her right foot. Venus Williams is ranked fourth, and the only other American women in the top 100 are No. 74 Vania King and No. 83 Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Oudin said the emergence of another young American such as 18-year-old Christina McHale, No. 113, would help relieve the pressure.

“They can take some of the night matches from me,” Oudin said.

Oudin has struggled in the year’s first three majors. She lost in the first rounds of the Australian and the French Opens, and in the second round of Wimbledon, where she played to the fourth round a year ago.

Tougher Times

“I wasn’t winning every tournament before that, I just happened to have one of my best tournaments at the two Grand Slams in that year, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open,” Oudin said in an interview at Eastbourne, England, in June.

Mary Joe Fernandez, a former pro player and Oudin’s coach on the U.S. Fed Cup team, said players often have trouble after an initial breakthrough.

“She can have another run, but it’s going to be harder, the second year is always tougher after players learn your game and learn how you compete,” Fernandez said in an interview.

Oudin said that, while her higher ranking meant she no longer had to play in qualifying tournaments, it also meant that “now I’m playing top 50 all the time.” There are also more demands from outside tennis, “extra stuff that I didn’t have last year.”

Returning to the National Tennis Center may mean that just increases, Oudin said.

“I’m hoping it won’t be that bad, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be,” she said. “Because of last year, I think people are going to hope or expect that I can do it again. The thing for me is this year I’m just going to try to go into it like I did last year, and that’s how I did so well.”

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