At what point does a sports story tumble out of the narrow confines of the stadium or playing field and into the national cultural conversation? We're finding out this September 2009, at the National Tennis Center in New York City.
Melanie Oudin—a petite, home-schooled 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia—could be making herself a household name. When the 2009 U.S. Open—the last of the year's major tennis tournaments—began, Oudin was unheralded, unseeded and largely unknown. But after beating three highly rated players in thrilling three-set matches, Oudin has cleared the way to be one of the biggest inspirational stories of 2009.
Oudin's clearest professional precursors are Venus and Serena Williams, who both stormed onto the professional tennis scene as teenagers. But Venus' surprising first trip to the U.S. Open finals happened more than a decade ago...when Melanie Oudin was just 5 years old! We've been waiting a long time for another tennis Cinderella story like this.
But what, exactly, were we waiting for?
The Cinderella story of an underdog overcoming limitations on a grand scale at just the right time. The rags to riches story is almost as old as literature itself.
Oudin plays the part of Cinderella so well because of her youth (again, she's only 17), her newfound success (she was ranked all the way down the international charts at 177 in the beginning of 2009) and her anonymity. In an ironic twist, Oudin and her family were forced out of their Manhattan hotel because they'd only made a reservation for one week—even they didn't anticipate her advancing so far in the tournament as to need to stay for a second week.
Almost as a bonus, Oudin put together a string of wins that were tense, hard-fought, dramatic and undeniably entertaining. In each, she lost the first set to higher ranked opponent. At this point, an unknown like Oudin would have been forgiven for recognizing her limitations and accepting defeat at the hands of better opponent. But she didn't, and she fought back to win some of the most exhilarating matches of the tournament.
How was she able to get so far? According to an article by Matthew Futterman and Carl Bialik in The Wall Street Journal, Oudin and her coach, Brian de Villiers, are some of the few people in the tennis community who spend time analyzing tape and developing strategy based on an opponent's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
But perhaps one of the biggest reasons Melanie Oudin is so fascinating is because the public carries no emotional baggage about her. For those who aren't hard-core tennis fans, famous players can become boring. Seeing them again can feel tiresome and stale. We don't want to know anything more about their personal lives.
With Oudin, there's so much to learn about her, and so many of the anecdotes about her sound so all-American and normal: while most upper echelons of women's tennis are dominated by 6-foot-tall physical specimens, Oudin is a modest 5 feet, 6 inches tall. And she has a twin sister who is not a tennis prodigy. And she has a boyfriend who is even younger than she is.
Are you rooting for Melanie Oudin? What's your favorite Cinderella story? Share your opinion by commenting at the bottom of this page!