(Eds: Updates throughout. With AP Photos.)By HOWARD FENDRICHAP Tennis Writer
Melanie Oudin was introduced to the world – and to the notion of outsized expectations – when she was an unseeded and unknown 17-year-old from Marietta, Ga., who upset Maria Sharapova during a captivating run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals.
The going’s been rough since: a 2-8 record at Grand Slam tournaments, plenty of other early exits elsewhere, too, and a ranking that dropped from a high of 31st to 370th. She didn’t even get into the Australian Open in January after losing her opening match in qualifying.
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Now 20 and trying to work her way back, Oudin is heading to the main draw of the French Open this month after earning a wild card at low-level clay-court tournaments in the United States.
”There’s always ups and downs in everyone’s tennis career. For me, this was definitely the down part of my career. Hopefully there won’t be too many other down parts. But what matters is how you come out of your downs,” Oudin said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday, the words delivered in that familiar rat-a-tat style of hers. ”Ups are always great. But what really makes you a great tennis player is how you deal with the losses and come out of a slump.”
The kid whose shoes were stamped with the word ”Believe” during those magical, memorable two weeks in New York more than 2 1/2 years ago is using that mantra again.
For whatever ups and downs Oudin already has lived as a pro tennis player – at ages when some people are in high school or college – she sounded a positive note Monday.
”I’ve handled myself well. I’ve really tried to keep going. Not getting down on myself. Never giving up. And playing tennis again for the reasons I love play: Not for the winning and losing, but because I love to play and I love competing and playing in all the tournaments,” Oudin said. ”I’m definitely doing better now. I feel like my game is coming into place again and I’m starting to get more confidence. I’m going in the right direction now.”
She’s 270th in Monday’s WTA rankings, too low to even get invited to the qualifying rounds for the French Open, the year’s second Grand Slam tournament.
But the U.S. Tennis Association gets two wild cards for Paris that it can hand out however it wants (the French federation gets a pair for the U.S. Open in exchange). This year, the USTA awarded those wild cards based on results at recent events. Brian Baker of Nashville, Tenn., got the men’s invitation, and Oudin got the women’s, thanks in large part to winning a USTA Pro Circuit title at Charlottesville, Va.
”It’s really good for me to come through and win a tournament, because I hadn’t won a tournament in a while,” Oudin said. ”I definitely see it as an accomplishment. Getting the main-draw wild card gives me a huge opportunity to do well and hopefully I can get some matches there and get my ranking back up.”
She started training with USTA coaches in Florida in October, then moved to New York to work with Jay Gooding and Jorge Todero of the USTA a little more than two months ago.
Their focus is on fitness and confidence, more than any particular stroke.
”She’s already been there and done that. She was up to 30th in the world. She was playing at a high level for a year or two. Tennis is not the issue. It’s mental and physical,” Gooding said. ”She’s already proven that she could do it, and as long as she got her head back in a good place, she knew she could start winning again.”
Whatever progress is being made now, the real goal is to start off 2013 fresh as Oudin moves into what Gooding referred to as ”her second career.”
”What we want to learn from is what she did after the U.S. Open that year. She could have managed her schedule a bit better. She played too much. Got a little burned out. Did a little too many media commitments, maybe,” he said. ”It’s not like she’s the first to ever go through that. It happens a lot, where people skyrocket up and then the next year is the difficult one. Having that experience, maybe she can do things a little bit different.”
Instead of looking at what happened in 2009 as a burden, Oudin is trying to find inspiration from it.
”It’s something I’ll always be able to look back on and feel like: I did this, and I can do it again. It’s something I can work toward. And I’m really looking forward to having another great run like that again. I just don’t know when it will come. Just like I didn’t know that was going to come out of nowhere,” she said.
”I just have to keep working hard,” Oudin added, ”and remember that I can compete with the best in the world.”
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich