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09.07.09

Tennis' New All-American Sweetheart

The feisty teenager from Marietta, Ga. has vaulted into the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, dispatching elite Russians Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, and Nadia Petrova along the way.

Seventeen-year-old blond phenom Melanie Oudin has taken the U.S. Open by storm. The Daily Beast’s Danielle Friedman, who hails from the same Georgia town as Oudin, talks to friends and locals about the “warm” and “lovely” rising tennis star.

It has all the trappings of a great American fairy tale.

Young, earnest, hardworking girl follows her passion, defies the odds, and wows the world. In almost American Idol-like fashion, she develops an instant fan base and puts her quiet hometown on the map. Yet unlike some reality show winners who’ve recently won our hearts (ahem, Susan Boyle), the blond tennis phenom Melanie Oudin is in no need of a makeover.

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“She looks like she just scrubbed her face with Noxzema,” says sportscaster Michelle Beadle, currently the co-host of SportsNation on ESPN2. “She’s like Reese Witherspoon playing this role in a movie. She looks like a girl whose summer job is to sell clothes at Abercrombie.”

In less than a week, Oudin, 17, has risen to become tennis’ new American sweetheart, as match after match she’s beaten Russians like she’s Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV. (That said, Rocky might never have been able to pull off funky pink sneakers inscribed with the word “Believe.”) After defeating powerhouses Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, and Nadia Petrova in thrilling, come-from-behind matches, Oudin will now be the youngest woman in a decade to make it into the open quarterfinals. Not since Serena Williams achieved the same feat in 1999—before going on to win the tournament, also at 17—has the country had a new ingénue to cheer about in women’s tennis.

Indeed, broadcasters haven’t missed an opportunity to point out Oudin’s All-American roots. She hails from Marietta, Georgia—a manicured, upper-middle-class city north of Atlanta that also happens to be my hometown. Quiet and suburban, the area boasts endless high-end strip malls and an equal number of Baptist churches. At my big, public high school, football was king; we hosted four competitive cheerleading squads and two beauty pageants.

Still, Marietta hasn’t churned out too many professional athletes. While Dikembe Mutombo lived in the area when he played for the Hawks and Gerald Riggs while he played for the Falcons, among a handful of other big names, they moved to Marietta once they’d arrived. So for locals, Oudin’s rise has been especially exhilarating.

“It’s beyond amazing,” said Justin Snider, who has known Oudin since kindergarten and attends high school with her twin sister, Katherine Oudin. (Snider and his classmates respond to my questions with, “yes, ma’am,” in typical Southern fashion.)

Snider, 17, watched Saturday’s match against Sharapova at the Oudin family’s home. “It’s a surreal experience,” he said.

Rallying particularly enthusiastically for Oudin are members of Racquet Club of the South in nearby Norcross, where she has trained since she was a kid. For her last two matches, nearly 80 people gathered to watch her play in the tennis club’s restaurant.

“She is totally lovely, and she’s just one of the gang,” said Ann Keeton, player liaison at the club. “She practices with the other kids, she eats in the grill with the other kids.” And she’s also as humble as she seems on television: When water leaked on their indoor courts about a month ago, Oudin spent hours squeegeeing them.

“The sense you get of her at the end of a match, when they’re interviewing her—her utter delight with what’s happening—that’s so who she is.”

“The sense you get of her at the end of a match, when they’re interviewing her—her utter delight with what’s happening—that’s so who she is,” says Keeton. “She’s down to earth and warm. She’s the darling of the U.S. Open for very legitimate reasons.”

For American women’s tennis, Oudin’s arrival has been a long time coming. Not since the 1970s, when Chris Evert rose to the top of the pro-tennis scene, has this country seen such a girl-next-door-style sweetheart in the sport, said Michelle Beadle. “From Day 1, I’ve never heard the Williams sisters referred to as sweethearts,” she added. While Jennifer Capriati briefly filled that role in the 1990s, she fell from grace after being arrested for shoplifting and marijuana possession.

More important, however, the country hasn’t seen a player with talent as promising as Oudin’s in women’s tennis since the Williams sisters. Tennis fans nationwide hope she will continue to fill the vast void between Venus and Serena—who continue to stand at the top of the tennis world—and the rest of American female players.

Meanwhile, back in Marietta, the excitement has only been building. At Katherine Oudin’s private high school, The Walker School, teachers have been brushing aside lesson plans to broadcast Melanie Oudin’s matches. During football practice on Monday, which coincided with the end of Oudin’s match against Petrova, the team’s coach would call out the score every five minutes, said senior Alex Moyer, 17. Locals’ Facebook status messages cheer “Mel” on.

On Wednesday, Oudin faces yet another high-ranking opponent, this time Danish No. 9 seed Caroline Wozniacki. Americans will be rooting for Oudin. Yet even if she doesn’t win—at the close of a summer of polarizing battles over back-to-school speeches and health-care debates—Oudin has provided the country with a burst of sunshine.

Xtra Insight: Check out The Daily Beast's latest U.S. Open photos and reports.

Danielle Friedman has worked as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. Her writing has been published in the Miami Herald, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and on CNN.com. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.