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Two teens transform the tennis world

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Teenagers Melanie Oudin and Yanina Wickmayer were a hit at the U.S. Open in New York last month, arriving as unseeded talents and emerging as legitimate competitors. Wickmayer went deepest in the Open draw but Oudin, sporting the word “Believe” on her shoes, generated huge shock waves.

In a recent profile of the two players, the New York Times headline read:  2 teenagers on the way up and aiming to stay there.

Unbelievably, Oudin, who hails from Georgia,  upset three Russian establishment figures at the Open  — Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova — before falling to another teen, the 9th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.  Wickmayer meanwhile reached the semifinals of the Grand Slam and went home a hero.

After her run at the Open,  the LA Times riffed off of Sinatra lyrics and said about Oudin:

“… She (came) to New York City to see whether she could make it there. Little did she know, thanks to television and the Internet, she would make it everywhere.”

Both Oudin and Wickmayer took time off after the Open to decompress and allow lingering leg injuries to heal. They’re both in Asia now trying to leverage their newfound success.

Earlier this week, Oudin suffered a loss at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo to the 35-year-old American veteran Jill Craybas  in the second round of qualifying.

Oudin, who turned 18 last week, admitted it’s hard going from playing really, really well in a major tournament to going back and having to qualify for a tournament. She realizes needs to get more experience  and better adjust to different atmospheres and different places.

Oudin now plays the qualifying tournament in Beijing while Wickmayer has made the main draw thanks to a wild card.

For both players, the tricky question is where do they go from here? The women’s game is suddenly much richer in talent with the comeback of Belgian powerhouses Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

For Wickmayer, she’s suddenly sharing the world stage with her heroes and compatriots. In fact last May, when Henin retired suddenly still ranked No. 1 in the world, Wickmayer — then a little known and outside the top 100 — suddenly became Belgium’s top women’s player.

Exceptional achievement for young players, however, is no guarantee of future success in tennis. In fact, many unseeded youngsters who make a Grand Slam breakthrough do not continue to kick down doors.

The NYT article cites Alexandra Stevenson, a Californian who reached the Wimbledon semifinals as an 18-year-old qualifier in 1999. She never made it past the second round in another major tournament as she struggled with mobility, consistency and injuries. Or Clarisa Fernández, an Argentine left-hander who beat Clijsters at age 20 on her way to the French Open semifinals in 2002 and never managed to beat another top 10 player.

Oudin is currently ranked 42nd with a convincing forehand and fine footwork (her backhand and serve however are both in need of improvement.) Wickmayer is 23rd with an impressive, aggressive power game that some say lacks variety and adaptability.

Wickmayer says she feels a lot stronger on the court than one or two years ago;  and that’s more important than being No. 1 in Belgium. She’s thinks it’s good Clijsters and Henin are back and they’ll be able to have a bit of competition among themselves.

Oudin is also excited about the playing field. Henin, who is of similar  height and build (5’6″), has long been her inspiration. The young Oudin has seen her play just once in person but now might get the opportunity to play against her in competition.  If the American player adapts and continues her upward trajectory, the Australian Open – where Henin plans to make her comeback – might be the stage for that match.

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