The Curse of the Stars and Stripes

This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

It began with Melanie Oudin.

We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.

We also know what happened next.

It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.

Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.

As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.

Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.

Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.

If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.

There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.

So Give Mel Something to Believe

“So give me something to believe, ‘cause I am living just to breathe. And I need something more, to keep on breathing for.” – The Bravery, “Believe”

Let’s rewind for a moment to 2009. Melanie Oudin had just defeated Jelena Jankovic in the third round of Wimbledon. Following her shock upset, Oudin stated:

“I think I handled it really well…I was just thinking that she was any other player and this was any other match at any other tournament, not like on the biggest stage at Wimbledon playing my first top 10 player…I’m very excited right now. But I’m hoping there will be better days too.”

Little did she know, “better days” were coming right around the corner. Perhaps sooner than Oudin was ready for. At the 2009 US Open, Oudin became the youngest woman to reach the quarterfinals there since Serena Williams in 1999; she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova before falling to Caroline Wozniacki. The American media latched onto Oudin; to them, she had it all. Seemingly overnight, she became the next face of American women’s tennis.

To say the three years since her giant-killing run have been tough for Oudin is putting it mildly. Very mildly. Personal and family conflicts, high expectations and loss of form and confidence caused Oudin to free fall. Prior to the start of the 2012 Family Circle Cup, her record since 2009 stood at 35-62 and she had fallen outside the top 300 in the world rankings. Oudin did not win back-to-back matches in 2011, finishing the season with a 10-33 record. (She was the beneficiary of two walkovers in tournaments where she won her first match.) The lone bright spot for Oudin came unexpectedly at the 2011 US Open, where she and fellow American teenager Jack Sock took home the mixed doubles title (d. Dulko/Schwank).

Oudin, whose motto during her 2009 run was simply “Believe”, has been criticized, and even mocked, by tennis fans. By early 2012, Oudin finally had enough; despite having earlier placed blame only on herself, she split from her longtime coach, Brian de Villiers, desperate for a new voice and a fresh approach.

Coming into Charleston with an 0-5 record on the season, few, if any in the tennis community expected Oudin to do any damage in the tournament. She was barely competitive at the higher ITF levels, let alone in WTA draws. To add to this, she had drawn the in-form 11th seed, Great Britain’s Heather Watson in the first round of the qualifying tournament; Watson had just come off a third round showing in Miami (l. to Azarenka).

She toughed out the win against Watson, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. Oudin had defeated a player close to her in age, but seemingly worlds apart in career standing. Watson is on the rise, Oudin was going backwards. A routine win against Slovenia’s Petra Rampre followed, and Oudin was in the main draw of a WTA Tour event for the first time since September 2011. For the first time in quite a long time, Melanie Oudin exceeded expectations.

Her placement in the draw was now up to fate, and Oudin drew the short end of the stick. She was drawn to play clay court specialist, 10th seeded Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain. Oudin gave the Spaniard all she could handle, but the latter’s match toughness and fitness prevailed in the end, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.

Despite the loss, Oudin remained upbeat:

At the end of the day, the match against Medina Garrigues in Charleston will go down as another first round loss for Oudin. Will this be the start of a revival? That remains to be seen. Just maybe, however, she’s given her fans reason to hope. She’s given herself a reason to believe.