Where are they now? Melanie Oudin, 2009 U.S. Open sensation

Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution catches up with former Atlanta sports figures in this occasional series. Today: Melanie Oudin, 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinalist.

For a thin slice of a week in 2009 at a mecca certainly more glorious than it sounds – Flushing Meadows – a 17-year-old from Marietta grabbed the tennis world with an unyielding two-handed grip.

At maybe 5-foot-6, chasing balls from the baseline with a zealot’s fervor, Melanie Oudin made one of those surprising runs that gives a sport life. On her shoes, she wore the message “Believe.” And on the U.S. Open court, the 70th-ranked upstart put her motto to work as she kept coming up against these towering Russians in the draw and kept chopping and chopping and chopping until they fell.  

Oudin (pronounced Oo-Dan), who had shown signs of a coming-out at Wimbledon that year when she beat former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, would overcome two top-15 players and then-three-time grand slam champ Maria Sharapova on her way to the Open quarterfinals. Before losing there to Caroline Wozniacki, she became a bona fide, go-on-Good-Morning-America, pose-with-Justin-Timberlake sensation.

And at a time when there seemed no other domestic players of promise not named Williams, Oudin was a brief rallying point for tennis in America.

Nice while it lasted. But the whirlwind has to give way to the soft, constant breath of the everyday. Now, here we are at the whatever-happened-to stage of a phenom’s life, where even at the tender age of 28 it is time to redefine or become a prisoner of the past.

So, call her Coach Mel now, please.

Beset by a series of ailments that became harder to deal with than they were to pronounce – rhabdomyolysis, a rare muscle condition, as well as a heart arrhythmia – Oudin ended her pro career in 2017.

Having seen the world, she decided home was still the place to be and now owns a Sandy Springs address.

“Of course, I would love to still be playing,” she said last week.

“I definitely miss competing, for sure. But I felt relieved, almost, when I retired because I felt like I was fighting so hard for a few years to come back mentally and physically – trying so hard after the injuries, and they just kept coming back. It was so defeating when I got another injury. My body just couldn’t physically handle it anymore. And mentally it was a lot to deal with.”

There would be other playing highlights that kept her going for as long as she did. Just the other day, in preparation for a small housewarming gathering, she was polishing the U.S. Open mixed-doubles trophy she won with Jack Sock in 2011 and in the process rejuvenating a favorite memory. At her height, Oudin was ranked 31st in the world. To her credit is one WTA title in 2012 and a few fond Fed Cup forays. But she never was able to recapture the 2009 U.S. Open lightning on the biggest stages, her grand-slam record 4-14 following that run to the quarterfinals.

What has passed for competition lately have been two cameo appearances in ALTA mixed-doubles matches – which she said she won. Oudin only giggles when asked if she carried her partner.

“I hit a lot in my lessons with the kids,” she said. “There are some good players I work with, and I hit a lot with them, and they give me some good workouts. We’re not playing points or a match, but it’s hitting in. The timing still there; I still can hit a good ball.”

For nearly a year after her retirement, Oudin said she wandered while trying to decide what was next. Did she want to take her effervescent personality to the tennis commentators booth? Or get out of the sport altogether? Eventually, she found that her heart was with coaching, devoting the enthusiasm and energy she brought to playing to the practice court. 

“It was hard in the beginning because I was thinking of myself as Melanie the tennis player – which will always be a little hard,” she said. “But then I got the point where everyone started calling me Coach Mel. And now I’m used to being called Coach Mel. It’s my new identity, which I really like.

“I never really saw myself as a coach when I was younger. I never really put myself in their shoes. Now I realize that I can give a lot back and share what I’ve learned over the years. I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy it until I actually tried it.”

Oudin was with a local tennis club for a while. She regularly works USTA developmental camps around the South. And for the past two years she has hosted a summer camp locally for girls, concentrating on the 10-to-14-year-old age group that is, as Oudin puts it, “trying to learn how to believe in themselves and have self-confidence in who they are as a person and a tennis player.”

The coronavirus has put a big hold on the camp as well as other coaching opportunities, but Oudin said she has other potential assignments lined up for when the world gets back to working on its ground strokes.   

As an instructor, it will come as little surprise that Oudin trades in the upbeat. She will scold a young player for lack of effort and won’t tolerate lapses of respect. Overall, though, “I got yelled at like all the time when I was younger. It did work for me, but I know all the kids aren’t like me. I realize you can’t coach every kid the same. I believe in positivity more than negativity. I’m generally a more positive person. That’s just who I am.”

The kids she coaches now have no firsthand connection to that glorious, impetuous burst at the U.S. Open in 2009. Parents are there to fill them in as best they can, but that experience is so difficult to describe for those who didn’t live it. And that’s fine with Oudin.

Because, as she says, “I’m Coach Mel now.”

“That’s my new chapter. I’ll always be Melanie the tennis player, that’s always going to be a part of me, right? But the new part of me is going to be Coach Mel. And this new chapter I hope to have for a long time.”