Oudin's spark has returned

After her inspirational run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals, the little spark plug that was Melanie Oudin completely burned out and wasn't heard from until recently at Fed Cup and the Paris Indoors, where, finally refreshed, she won five straight matches and showed America's summer love affair with the 18-year-old won't be a one off.

With the paltry amount of promising young American women, that's a good thing for U.S. tennis. World No. 1 Serena Williams won't be around forever, and her older sister, Venus, is clearly declining. At 5-feet-6 and 130 pounds, Oudin may not have the body type to rack up multiple Grand Slam titles, but she loves to compete, and that goes a long way toward success.

"She has so much room for improvement, but her biggest weapon is her mentality and she likes to play under pressure," said Tennis Channel analyst Corina Morariu, who called Oudin's matches both at Fed Cup and at the Paris Indoors. "In women's tennis today, there aren't that many players who feel that way."

For the most part over the past year, Oudin has coped well with the pressure, but her learning curve has been steep and she has been handed some hard lessons. After a brilliant summer when she upset Jelena Jankovic and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and then took down a phalanx of decorated Russians, including Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, to reach the U.S. Open quarters, the enthusiastic blonde sputtered. After the Open, she flew to Asia and then Europe, where she won only one match -- in qualifying no less -- and then came home and played six exhibitions. That turned out to be a huge mistake.

"I was pretty much done after the U.S. Open," Oudin told FOXSports.com. "There was so much stuff going on, way more media than I ever experienced, and physically after so many matches and mentally having to come back in those matches, it wasn't easy and I was exhausted. I used everything I had at the Open and had nothing left. I put way too much pressure on myself, and I needed a break."

Former tour player Morariu has seen that happen to plenty of young players who just don't know when enough is enough, as they want to capitalize on their momentum and aren't sure how to strike a proper balance.

"The more you keep playing when you are fatigued, you start losing and then you start doubting yourself, and then it becomes a downward spiral," Morariu said.

Oudin didn't start 2010 in stellar fashion either, losing in the first round of Auckland and then going down 7-5 in the third set to Alla Kudryavtseva in the first round of the Australian Open, despite holding match points. Extremely disappointed and tearful, Oudin said expectations for her were way too high, but noted in her signature fashion she'd "keep believing."

So before heading to the Fed Cup in France, she went to Florida to watch some of her male friends play. There she told herself to take it easy and not to continue to stress about what the scoreboard was saying. She traveled across the Atlantic, sparked the U.S. win over France by beating both Pauline Parmentier and Julie Coin on clay and, voila, her confidence returned.

"I learned how to cope with losses and just moved on," she said. "I was confident again and wasn't stressed about doing really well and I just went out, played and had fun."

Part of the credit for her turnaround must go to U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who has done an excellent job fielding motivated, competitive teams even though the Williams sisters have essentially bailed on the competition. Oudin is receptive to advice, not only from Fernandez, but also from her longtime private coach, Brian De Villiers.

"She has such a great attitude," Morariu said. "When you hear coaches talking to players during changeovers, a lot of times you hear one of them yelling at the other. But not Melanie. She listens and absorbs so well and picks up on things. She's forced a little more to think through points because she can't out-hit a lot of girls, but she picks up on weaknesses and realizes the patterns that she needs to use. It's so refreshing. She's always looking to do things differently, and that's rare."

Even though Oudin had a tiring Fed Cup weekend in northern France, she headed to Paris to compete on an indoor hard court and, despite a bad cold, played extremely well. She defeated former top-10 player Patty Schnyder, 6-1, 6-3, took out talented Agnes Szavay, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, and then, in the semis, gave Dementieva all she could handle in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss. It was the first time she had reached the semifinals of a WTA premier event, and, as a result, she reached a career high ranking of No. 42.

"It really gave me a lot of confidence," Oudin said. "I played my best and remembered that getting better is the key thing and didn't worry about winning every singles match."

Oudin is the second seed at this week's Regions Morgan Keegan Champs/Cellular South Cup in Memphis, behind a familiar face -- Sharapova. Oudin has virtually no points to defend between Memphis and Wimbledon, so it's possible she can achieve her goal of being seeded by the French Open. She'll also play Indian Wells, Miami and the Fed Cup again against Russia at home before heading to the clay.

Some analysts think she has top-10 ability, while others don't think she can paste the ball hard enough to ever be a consistent major threat to the likes of the Williams sisters and Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. She has terrific foot speed, a sizeable forehand and decent variety with her backhand, but if the WTA's historical pattern holds true, it will take monstrous effort from a scrappy, undersized player like Oudin to become a truly elite player. In the past 12 years, only Martina Hingis and Henin have been able to do so.

"Her forehand is a weapon, and she still developing it," Morariu said. "She needs to work on her serve, but in Paris she was hitting her backhand better than I've ever seen it because she has a tendency to be to passive with it when she over-slices and she gets defensive. That gets her into trouble."

Oudin said she's working to improve everything. noting she's not getting killed on her service games anymore, is hitting her backhand "1,000 times better," is learning to close points out at the net and believes as she ages, she'll naturally get stronger.

The Georgia resident's goal is to reach the top 20 by the time the U.S. Open rolls around, but Morariu said she might be getting ahead of herself.

"I think that's ambitious," she said. "If she plays the way she did in Paris, then she is playing like a top 20 player, but week in and week out will be a challenge. Look at what happened where she did well at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and then five months go by and she only won a match in qualies and was struggling.

"There's going to be a balance for her because she's going to have to work pretty hard to win points. But most women play a style she likes -- giving her balls where she can feed off the pace, which is a positive. It might have been tougher for her 10 years ago when there was a little more variety. But attitude, fight and determination will take you a long way, and there are a lot of other players who are mentally fragile. She's not."

Oudin said she has put her struggles behind her, but in order to reach her goals, she's not only going to have make a deep run in Memphis, but also make sizeable pushes at the premier events in March at Indian Wells and Miami. She said she's up for further attention and as she wrote on her shoes in New York, she "believes."

"Now that I've experienced it all, I know how to handle it," she said. "I can go out there without pressure and just perform. I really feel I'm ready for my year now."