An Associated Press photo of Melanie Oudin at the 2009 U.S. Open
Photo: AP/Kathy Willens
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.