Not again. Not like this.
Melanie Oudin's 2-6, 7-5, 4-6 loss to Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of this week's Pilot Pen marked the 11th time in 19 tournaments the 18-year-old was bounced in her opening singles match. And while she remains optimistic, saying, "I feel like I belong" afterward, the truth is this is not the year any of us were expecting.
Not after she waltzed into last year's U.S. Open as an unknown wearing pink and yellow sneakers with the word "BELIEVE" on the back and leaving as America's next tennis sweetheart, thanks to a quarterfinals run and appearances on late-night TV. Oudin was supposed to build on that and take 2010 by storm. Instead she's the one being swept away as she heads into Flushing Meadows with a 17-19 record and a four-match losing streak.
"The pressure and expectations that she has are different," her agent Sam Duvall said.
Can't argue with that.
The question is, does her lull in momentum mean she can't handle the added pressure and expectations, or in typical sports media fashion, are we just expecting too much too soon? You know how we are America; in our rush to find the next great whomever, we take the tiniest spark and behave as if we've discovered a supernova. A couple of flashes of athleticism in the NBA and a player is dubbed the next Jordan. A little mobility in the NFL pocket draws comparisons to Steve Young. One day Stephen Strasburg is the next Nolan Ryan and the next people are wondering if he can handle the rigors of a full MLB season as he heads to the DL for the second time in a month.
Let's face it, we like our athletes the way we like our summer blockbusters: lots of action, not a whole lot of character development.
When we step back and take an honest look at Oudin, we realize she only turned pro in 2008. And while her record may not turn heads, she's played the most pro tennis in her life this year and the 17 wins is her career high on WTA tour. She is still the youngest player in the Top 50, and in a country obsessed with finding the next great, she is the highest-ranking American not named Williams.
And yet when Venus and Serena were Oudin's age they were already winning titles, including a pair of mixed doubles Grand Slam titles each. Jennifer Capriati had beaten Steffi Graf in the Olympics to win gold and Chris Evert had a couple of Slam runner-ups -- all by 18. The closest Oudin's gotten to a title since snatching headlines in Flushing Meadows was a quarterfinals appearance in Charleston back in April. Since then she's 4-11, including Fed Cup.
So is it us or is it her?
A year ago she asked us to believe, and we did. A year later we're wondering exactly what we are to believe in. Eighteen might seem a little early to wonder whether an athlete has already peaked, but tennis is played in dog years. Just look at fellow Georgian Donald Young, who started his career as a 15-year-old up and comer and now is a 21-year-old who may never arrive. I'm sure early in his career he felt he had time; six years later, he's 12-41 -- overall. No knock on him, just a reminder that time waits for no one.
It's easier to beat the ranked players when nothing's expected. But after a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon in 2009, and of course, last year's Open, Oudin's not sneaking up on anyone. In fact, in some ways, because of her added notoriety, she's the one with the bull's-eye on her back as she finds herself losing to qualifiers. Cibulkova was an injury replacement and wasn't even supposed to play in the Pilot Pen. How do you lose to her if you're Melanie Oudin, and you're preparing to head back to the site of your greatest tennis?
Are Oudin's recent struggles a reflection of too much pressure or simply growing pains? When a tennis player puts together a string of big wins in a big tournament the way Oudin did a year ago, other players and coaches scout more intently, identifying weaknesses and constructing points to attack those weaknesses.
Are her recent struggles just a reflection of the level of respect she's earned or was last year just a fluke? The way American Robby Ginepri had a fluke U.S. Open semifinal run in 2005 and hasn't been to a Slam quarter since? Remember all of the brouhaha surrounding Alexandra Stevenson's Wimbledon semifinal run in 1999? She hasn't sniffed a semi of any tournament since, either.
Is it possible that Oudin's best days are not in front but actually behind her? Or are we just petulant children who want their next American superstar, and we want her now?
I'm hoping it's the latter that's a lot easier to stomach than the thought of a teenager already on the way down.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.