As I sat on the British table at the Professional Tennis Registry’s award ceremony last night at the Crowne Plaza, Hilton Head Island, we were informed that Brian de Villiers, coach of America’s new sweetheart, 18 year old Melanie Oudin could not accept his award for PTR Touring Coach of the Year due to his commitments in supporting his young protégé in France during her impressive run at the Open GDF Suez tournament in Paris, which came to an end after a gutsy semi final performance on Saturday against top seeded Elena Dementieva 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
De Villiers had been awarded by the PTR for Oudin’s meteoric rise into America’s consciousness as their number three female player on the tour behind Serena and Venus Williams following her impressive run to the quarter finals at last year’s US Open, when she dispatched of Dementieva, Petrova and Sharapova no less. Her two victories over higher ranked players in the recent Fed Cup to give the United States a 4-1 win over France has not gone unnoticed by the American public desperate for someone to take over from the impressive Williams sisters, however the level headed star recently commented, ‘I know people are hoping I'm the next up-and-coming American but I don't read any of that, the blogs, the press, what anyone says. I just focus on myself and I already have my own goals. That's what I'm concentrating on.’
After the recent ‘burn outs’ of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova in their early twenties with career threatening injuries, I began to wonder whether steps had been taken by De Villiers to ensure Oudin’s longevity in the game?
Unlike Sharapova, whose years of intensive training on the hard courts of the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida have caused the star to remodel her serve in order to recover from a recurrent shoulder injury and Nadal’s pounding on the Spanish clay as a junior causing widespread concern over his tendonitis, De Villiers has been careful not to overdo the training and instead has chosen to allow Oudin to also focus her attentions on academic pursuits. De Villiers is well known for encouraging his young players to keep a balanced perspective on and off court. It has been documented that Oudin intends on studying for a medical degree in the future. Could this more balanced view be the key to her future success?
Indeed, the recent rise of American collegiate graduate John Isner to number 25 in the ATP world rankings has emphasized the idea that devoting too much time to tennis at a young age without consideration of a player’s personal and mental development outside of the game can be detrimental, while a more balanced approach to education can be more conducive to a lengthy and successful career.
The Williams sisters were notoriously held back from playing junior events by their father which could have been the predominating factor in their continued enthusiasm for the game, as well as their other pursuits such as Serena’s charity work and their fashion lines.
I think there has been a definite switch in opinion regarding the age at which players are expected to achieve success, confirmed by the notable come backs of Henin and Klijsters in their mid twenties following breaks from the game, when both players were allowed the time to shift their focus on personal development which has possibly given them an edge over their weary contemporaries such as Sharapova and Ivanovic whose years of focus and discipline have lead to mental and physical fatigue. Most players should be reaching their peak around the mid to late twenties mark, like the great Roger Federer, who many forget took 17 attempts at a Grand Slam title before winning one. However, in the past players have been written off as failures if they haven’t succeeded in their teens or early twenties, which with hindsight was ridiculous.
I really hope that young players such as Laura Robson and Melanie Oudin are given the time and space to develop at a more natural pace, with the inclusion of academic and social pursuits to ensure their love for the game, which can be lost like Andre Agassi admitted in his recent autobiography who went so far as to say he ‘hated’ the sport, but only began to truly love it aged 27 during his comeback which included several Grand Slam victories.
Number two seeded Melanie Oudin will face American qualifier Alexa Glatch in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis tomorrow. It will be interesting to see whether the level headed youngster, whose slogan ‘believe’ which she has emblazoned on her trainers and her coach’s balanced approach will create a fairy tale ending for her adoring American fans and become a future Grand Slam Champion.
Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach from London. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter. She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.