Forget the statuesque Russian babes. New York has fallen in love with a 5-foot-6 all-American teenager from Marietta, Georgia. Melanie Oudin used a booming forehand and the cheers of the crowd to overcome a painful left quadricep and defeat the No. 4 player in the world, Elena Dementieva, Thursday at the U.S. Open.
After Oudin, 17, narrowly lost the first set, 5-7, word got out that Dementieva had a match on her hands. The stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium began to fill up. The crowd was strongly behind Oudin; who wouldn’t be? The story was irresistible: a plucky kid defying the odds. Between points you often heard New Yorkers bellow, “Come on, Melanie! You can do it!” And after carrying the second set 6-4, Oudin began to believe them.
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Midway through the third set, with both women breaking the other’s serve regularly, Oudin pulled up lame. She groaned, grimaced, and grabbed her left thigh, which had been wrapped, rewrapped, and re-re-wrapped in an Ace bandage. But she gathered her strength and fought on, eventually working the veteran to the brink. Up 5-3 in the third set, Oudin had three straight match points—and lost the first two. With the crowd on its feet after every point, Oudin hit the serve of her life, won the point, the game, the set, the match, and the love of thousands of cheering Americans.
Somewhere Lou Dobbs must be smiling. Anyone worried about the alleged decline of America could have found ample evidence in women’s tennis. Oudin is the highest-ranking American woman in the world whose last name is not Williams…and she’s No. 70—or was before Thursday. Women’s tennis is dominated by leggy Soviet supermodels with unpronounceable names and two-fisted backhands. In the Cold War we feared Russian bombs. Who knew we’d be invaded by Russian bombshells?
Somewhere Lou Dobbs must be smiling. Anyone worried about the alleged decline of America could have found ample evidence in women’s tennis.
In fairness, they are outstanding tennis players, these Russians, which makes the whole situation all the more aggravating. How would the Washington Redskins feel if the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders not only looked like pinups but could whip their ass on the field?
But Melanie Oudin has changed all that—at least for today. After the match she put in a plug for fellow American Christina McHale, who was taking on über-babe and former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova on Thursday night. Maybe Oudin’s Georgia mojo would carry over to McHale. But even if it did not, Melanie Oudin has arrived. Her career earnings, reportedly $116,900, are less than the top women earn for a single advertising shoot. Let’s hope Melanie gets a few of those gigs—or at least a better shoe contract. She defeated one of the world’s best players while wearing funky pink and yellow Adidas shoes that she designed herself.
Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.