If you cupped your ear toward Atlanta in the wee hours this morning, you almost might’ve heard some exuberance and maybe even some hollering.
That rare entity known as the 7 a.m. party would have commenced. The kitchen staff of a tennis club in Norcross, Ga., would have arrived. And if it resembled Saturday, a throng might have yelled toward a big screen even if they couldn’t see anything up there but a mostly static web page.
“We cheered and we cheered and we cheered,” said Anne Keeton, the player liaison for the junior academy for the Racquet Club of the South.
“I’m an emotional wreck right now,” said John Oudin, the father of the 17-year-old sudden Wimbledon fourth-rounder who trains at that club. “I just still can’t believe it. I’m totally, absolutely blown away.”
Whatever became of Melanie Oudin’s round-of-16 match with Agnieszka Radwanska, the Georgia teen’s march through the Wimbledon draw as a qualifier has electrified a devoted pocket of American tennis and cast light on a borderline-mystical tennis story.
It has sent a buzz through Atlanta, a city known more for Braves and Falcons and Olympics and charmingly lunatic Southeastern Conference football fans calling radio stations, but also home to a vibrant tennis community.
Mostly, it has made people cheer for a website.
That’s what happened Saturday as Oudin, the 5-foot-6 jackrabbit who reveres Justine Henin, played No. 6-ranked Jelena Jankovic, having already beaten No. 28 Sybille Bammer and No. 74 Yaroslava Shvedova. When a crowd of about 35 arrived for the rare-hour gathering, television coverage had not yet begun, so these innovative sorts projected the Wimbledon website onto the large screen and cheered with each changing of the score. Eventually the live broadcast began, and the kitchen staff spilled out to join in.
“One of our very own has taken down No. 6,” Keeton said one day after Oudin did precisely that, rallying from a set down for the third straight match for her third-ever win in a Grand Slam tournament.
It whipped a host of things into motion. Oudin’s mother, Leslie, wound up on a Saturday night flight to London. Venus Williams, Oudin’s one-time Federation Cup teammate, said, “Super good news.” John Oudin hurried on Sunday afternoon to drop off their 11-year-old daughter, for his overnight flight would take off at 5:30 p.m.
It had been roughly 11 years since John’s mother-in-law, Jo Robertson, a grandmother who still plays, gave her fraternal-twin granddaughters sawed-off rackets and suggested tennis for them. It wound up being one of the more prescient suggestions on record.
Classically, Melanie and her sister Katherine would hit balls against garage doors. When their family lived on 3 1/2 acres, they serially implored their father to build them a tennis court. They would spend hours and hours and hours hitting balls back and forth across a cul-de-sac such that, John said, “The neighbors kind of got a kick out of it.” When rain would wash away practice time, Brian de Villiers confirmed, Melanie might cry.
She came to de Villiers with her sister at 9 as “a little kid with a big Prince racket,” said the coach, a Zimbabwe-raised former patrol officer in the Rhodesian army who played a bit and later coached with pros Amanda Coetzer and Luke and Murphy Jensen. Within a few years, de Villiers made a list of sacrifices Melanie realistically would have to make if she wanted to fulfill her now-famous 9-year-old’s dream of playing at Wimbledon. He’d schedule 6 a.m. practices and ask for extra 400-meter runs just to see if she’d comply.
“However hard you push her, she’ll respond,” de Villiers said.
As Katherine, who hopes to ply her own considerable tennis talent toward a university and toward becoming an obstetrician, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006, “The main difference is Melanie will stay on the tennis court all day and night. Tennis, it gets me in shape, it’s a hobby, and I want to get a college scholarship. But Melanie loves tennis more than I have ever seen anyone.”
When the family got a DVD of the 2005 film “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the golf biography of Frances Ouimet, Melanie at about 14 became entranced with it, John said. “Here was a little boy, a caddie, worked to win the U.S. Open,” he said. “Melanie said, ‘That’s me! I’m going to do that.’ ”
Working at the Riverside Club before moving with de Villiers over to the Racquet Club of the South, Oudin meticulously made decisions with her parents.
“In the beginning,” John said, “I was a little bit worried. I didn’t want her to miss out on camaraderie, friendships. She told me, ‘I’ve almost got that at the Racquet Club.’ ”
Carefully for a young girl, she opted for home schooling because she’d started progressing so far in junior tournaments that she’d miss too much classroom time. After she roared to No. 1 in juniors, she weighed matters and opted to turn professional and defer entering a university. Still, Keeton said, “There’s not this special Melanie court where she’s off exclusively doing this training that nobody else can be part of. She trains with other juniors, eats at the grill, leaves her wallet in the bathroom” as she once did before Keeton found it and returned it to her.
It’s just that she played well enough that she participated in an AIDS-benefit exhibition where the family met Elton John, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Andy Roddick, among others, and felt wowed.
And even with her challenged tennis height, she excelled against people who couldn’t believe they were losing to a little girl until the whole thing reached a point where the family started to notice that some of the juniors the family used to put on pedestals went off to do other things in the normal maelstrom of life.
Meanwhile, Melanie Oudin went to Wimbledon and caused quite the stir.