NEW YORK – Getting set to head to a practice session, Melanie Oudin was lingering outside Arthur Ashe Stadium the other day when a trio of women approached the darling of the 2009 U.S. Open.
One told Oudin what an inspiration she is and asked if they could take a photo. Oudin obliged, posing and smiling for three of the many, many fans who most likely never had heard of the teen from Marietta, Ga., a year ago at this time.
She came into the U.S. Open, her fourth career Grand Slam tournament, ranked 70th, then proceeded to knock off three-time major champion Maria Sharapova and 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva en route to reaching the quarterfinals. Oudin's mid-match comebacks, gee-whiz attitude and pink-and-yellow sneakers with "BELIEVE" stamped on the heels put her in the spotlight. Her victories made her, at 17, the youngest U.S. Open quarterfinalist since Serena Williams in 1999.
The 50 weeks since then haven't gone nearly as well.
"It's been a tough year, because people out there are placing expectations on her," said Oudin's coach, Brian de Villiers. "People forget she's only 18. ... For her to just get dropped into that at this age — there's no training for this. This is all firsthand experience."
The U.S. Open begins Monday, and Oudin returns to the site of her breakthrough having lost four matches in a row. She also endured a six-match losing streak at tournaments earlier this season, part of a 17-20 record. Her 1-3 mark at the year's other three Grand Slam tournaments includes first-round losses at the Australian Open and French Open, and a second-round exit at Wimbledon.
"Look, last year was totally different," de Villiers said. "She was the new kid in town. Nobody knew her. So you're not going to get that again. But it's still fun to be here, and of course she wants to try to do as well — or better. That's always the goal."
Oudin — it's pronounced oo-DAN — is ranked 44th this week, down from a career-best 31st in April, but leaps and bounds ahead of where she was not all that long ago. She was ranked 373rd at the end of 2007, and 177th at the end of 2008.
She is, by about 2½ months, the youngest member of the top 85 in the rankings. Plus, she's the highest-ranked American not named Williams: Serena is No. 1, Venus is No. 4.
"I definitely feel a lot more pressure than last year," Oudin said after a first-round loss at a hard-court tournament in Cincinnati this month. "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."
Listed by the WTA at 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, Oudin is not going to overpower too many opponents. Instead, she relies on a baseline-covering, counterpunching style.
"I really admire her game," seven-time major champion Venus Williams said. "She really makes the most out of her body and her talent. You know that if you are (playing) against Melanie, you have to give 100 percent on every point."
As someone who drew a lot of attention as a teen on the tennis tour, Williams was asked what advice she would offer Oudin, who makes clear she tires of discussing what happened during her U.S. Open debut.
"I would just say, stay focused and definitely don't read the articles, and if you're on TV, turn it on mute," Williams said.
The extra money — Oudin signed one endorsement deal about 20 minutes before taking the court to face eventual runner-up Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals — and extra attention come along with extra demands on her time and extra queries about that magical run through the draw.
"Everyone asked me in my press conference after I lost in Wimbledon — and even the French — they kept saying, 'How did it feel to get to the quarterfinals of U.S. Open?' I'm like, 'Aren't we at Wimbledon? Like, aren't we at the French Open? Why are you talking about the U.S. Open, when that was almost a year ago?'
"Now it's exactly a year ago, almost," Oudin said, "so I'm looking forward to not talking about it anymore."