WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Melanie Oudin looked down at the floor, clasped her hands together, and tried to explain how her game could spiral downward so quickly.
How could a player whose well-publicized mantra ‘Believe’ propelled her to the quarter-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open as a wide-eyed, can‘t-believe-it‘s-happening-to-me 17-year-old suddenly lose her confidence?
Slowly, painfully, the words came out.
”I’ve learned so much over the past few years,“ Oudin told Reuters in a recent interview. ”I’ve already been through the ups and the downs of tennis, the highs and the lows, doing extremely well and extremely badly.
“I’ve been through pretty much everything, which is crazy when I‘m only 20. Hopefully, I’ve come out of the biggest slump that I’ll have in my career. It just happened really early.”
Oudin stunned the tennis world three years ago when she bounced four high-profile Russians from the U.S. Open, including two-time grand slam finalist Elena Dementieva and world number two Maria Sharapova.
With her bubbly demeanor and endless energy, Oudin was the talk of Flushing Meadows, with fans cramming into Arthur Ashe Stadium just to get a peek at America’s newest darling.
Each time she won, she cried. She fell to the court as the crowd roared its approval.
The diminutive, blue-eyed blonde reached number 31 in the world in early 2010 before the losses came in bunches. There were so many setbacks her ranking plummeted to 370.
”I put so much pressure on myself after that Open,“ said the Marietta, Georgia, native. ”When I started losing, I was like, ‘I‘m supposed to be winning. I just beat all these great players I‘m supposed to be doing it every single week.’
“I felt after I had that great run at the U.S. Open the fans were wondering why I wasn’t winning every week. I let that get to me. People would yell at me, ‘C‘mon, what are you doing?’ I let it get into my head.”
“Everyone wanted me to do well but they didn’t understand it was hurting me at the same time. I put too much pressure on myself to do well. I was too tight.”
U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said the pressure of being labeled the “American hope of the next generation” was overwhelming.
”Confidence is a tricky thing,“ she told Reuters in a telephone interview. ”Some people have that innate confidence. Some people have to win a lot of matches to get the confidence.
“You work so hard for it but you can lose it very quickly.”
Fernandez said as people began to “figure out her game,” the wins became tougher.
”The second year on tour is always tougher,“ said Fernandez, who also coaches the women’s U.S. Olympic tennis team. ”Melanie has to work really hard for her points.
“So that makes it a little more difficult and she lost a little confidence when she tried to defend all of her points. Things kind of spiraled away from her.”
After a self-described “horrible” claycourt season in 2011 and a 6-0 6-1 drubbing by Serbian Ana Ivanovic in the first round at that year’s Wimbledon, Oudin took a few weeks off to re-boot her game.
”I needed a break from tennis badly,“ she said. ”I thought it couldn’t get any worse than this. I took two weeks off and felt good again. I was ready.
“I figured it can only get better. But it didn‘t,” she added with a hearty laugh. “I‘m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I‘m trying so hard.’ I almost lost the belief I had in myself.”
Oudin and her longtime coach Brian de Villiers parted ways and she now works with the staff of former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe in New York.
Slowly, the confidence is starting to return.
Earlier this year the effervescent Oudin won a pre-Wimbledon grasscourt tournament in Birmingham, England, defeating former number one Jelena Jankovic in straight sets the title match.
”She’s on the way back,“ insists Fernandez. ”She’s working hard to get herself in the best shape possible. She’s also constructing her points well. We’re going to see her do well again.
“I think we’re going to see her back to where she was or even higher.”
Oudin’s ranking has crawled back to 106 but that was not good enough to grant her direct entry into the August 27-September 9 U.S. Open. She was granted, however, a wildcard berth into the year’s final grand slam tournament.
Despite her troubles over the last few years, Oudin never considered finding another line of work. She refused to believe the 2009 U.S. Open was going to be the highlight of her singles career.
”I never thought about quitting,“ said Oudin, who won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title in 2011 with Jack Sock. ”I’ve worked so long and so hard on tennis.
”And it’s not like I stopped working hard when I wasn’t doing well. I just lost my confidence. I was wondering, sure, if I was ever going to play really well again.
“But I have to stay positive. I know it wasn’t a fluke. I know I can play well again.”
Editing by Frank Pingue