Yale Might Do U.S. Open’s Cinderella Some Good: Scott Soshnick

Melanie Oudin -- you remember her, right? -- is tired of discussing the best time of her tennis life. But good manners, not to mention a heavy dose of media training, dictate that she breathe deep, smile wide and regale the inquisitors with just how great it was to make a name for herself at last year’s U.S. Open.

As the 18-year-old pointed out after her first-round win two days ago, everyone gets one Cinderella story in their life.

“And mine was last year,” Oudin said.

Cinderella is already dead? How sad.

What we have at the U.S. Open in Flushing, New York, is a teenage giggler who is under the misguided impression that her tennis experience won’t get, can’t get, better.

As a relative unknown, Oudin a year ago ousted seeded Russians Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova and 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, becoming the youngest American woman to reach the Open’s quarterfinals since Serena Williams in 1999. She lost to eventual runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, this year’s top seed who talks tennis, yes, but also about taking courses at Yale University, expanding horizons, outside interests and being more than just an athlete. Good for her, knowing the history of tennis burnouts and declaring the intent to avoid a similar fate. Tennis might end at, oh, 25, 27 or 30, if a player is lucky. Life doesn’t. There’s so much more.

The women’s tennis tour can be cattish. Jealousies develop over the littlest things, maybe a perceived slight or misread glance. Doesn’t matter, really. Point is: It doesn’t take much.

Friendly Foes

Let’s hope that Wozniacki, a sage at the age of 20, and Oudin become friendly foes. It pays to have a pal. Just ask Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova, whose on-court rivalry never got in the way of friendship. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are pals. It hasn’t hurt their tennis any, even against each other.

The Tour can be a lonely place, especially for a teenager trying to meet and exceed newfound expectations of fans, sponsors and, well, even herself.

Oudin didn’t have to win it all last year, or even reach the championship match. America had its sweetheart who, from a sports marketing perspective, couldn’t have picked a more perfect venue to string a few wins together. This was, after all, New York, where fan favorites, even newbies whose names the crowd just learned to pronounce, are inundated with offers to represent companies desperately looking for a way to break through the sports endorsement clutter.

Everyone, it seemed, was enamored with the can-do kid, the Georgia peach who, a la Tony Robbins, had inscribed on her sneakers the word “Believe.”

Great Expectations

Following last year’s Open, Oudin inked new sponsorship agreements estimated to be worth more than $1 million.

Now, unfortunately for Oudin, it’s her sponsors and the tennis cognoscenti who believe. The masses believe that Oudin, whose name they remember for having done something good a while back, should win all the time.

Doesn’t work that way. Just ask No. 1 Nadal or No. 2 Federer, who, how dare they, drop a match every now and then.

“They tell me, like ‘Fire up, Melanie’ and all this stuff,” said Oudin, who, take note, is unseeded at the U.S. Open after losing in the first round of this year’s Australian and French Opens, and in the second round at Wimbledon, where she played to the fourth round a year ago. “I’m like, ‘I’m trying as hard as I can, you know.’”

Can’t you just picture a frustrated Jennifer Capriati saying the same thing years ago before she decided to take a break from tennis?

Growing Pains

Next up for Oudin is Alona Bondarenko, who also stands 5-foot-6.

I mention height because Oudin was asked the other day if she’d grown, -- physically, that is, -- since the last time we’d seen her. One can only assume the questioner is a casual tennis fan referring to last year’s Open since Oudin wasn’t exactly in hiding throughout the tennis season.

Oudin, interestingly enough, mentioned that a doctor told her that she probably wouldn’t grow much more.

“It was a pretty sad day,” Oudin said.

The audience laughed. I, however, cringed at the notion of a teenage athlete considering that bad news from a doctor.

Oudin also spoke about growing as a player, putting in the practice time while learning to accommodate the growing media demands that accompany name recognition.

“I’m working on a lot of things,” said Oudin, who thankfully didn’t list them.

Work, work, work.

When Oudin returns to work the word “Believe” won’t appear on her sneaker. It has been replaced by “Courage,” a change Oudin had a difficult time explaining. Something about needing courage to believe.

In keeping with that theme, let’s hope Oudin has the courage to believe that tennis won’t define her, that Cinderella stories aren’t limited to one per customer.

Maybe that’s a discussion she and Wozniacki can have on the walk to class. Or on center court.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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