Once the next great American, Melanie Oudin is trying something new

Melanie Oudin's rise was captivating. It was also probably too much, too soon. Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- After her incredible Cinderella run at the 2009 US Open -- which included upsetting Maria Sharapova on Arthur Ashe and a trip to the quarterfinals -- expectations were sky-high for 17-year-old Melanie Oudin.

She jumped in the rankings, landing as high as No. 31 in the world a few months later. She became the third-ranked American, behind only Serena and Venus Williams.

"It was an unbelievable year for me," she said while sitting in the media garden at the US Open on Monday. "When I beat Sharapova, I became an overnight sensation. It's a funny phrase to say, but that's actually what happened -- no one knew me the day before, and then the next day, it was like everyone knew me.

"It was very different for me. I was so young. I wasn't used to people wanting to know everything about me, and my personal life, and my family. It was a great experience, but it came a little bit early, a little bit earlier than I expected."

It seemed as if Oudin were destined to be the sport's next big thing. Before her run in Flushing was even over, she had signed new endorsement deals and won over fans across the globe with her "Believe" sneakers and her charming interviews. It looked to be the beginning of a very bright future.

But things change quickly in tennis.

Oudin never made another Grand Slam quarterfinal, and she advanced past the first round at a major on just two more occasions (the French Open in 2012 and 2013). She won the 2011 mixed doubles title at the US Open with Jack Sock, and her lone WTA singles title at the 2012 Aegon Classic. She failed to make it past qualifying at any of the year's Grand Slams in 2014 and was regulated mostly to the ITF tour thereafter. She retired in August of 2017 at the age of 25 due to persistent injuries and health problems.

"I never, ever thought I would retire before Venus and Serena," she said. "It was a lot of pressure after the Open. As the next-best American, people were saying I was supposed to be the future of U.S. tennis once they were done playing. I think I did a great job, handling it the best I could at only 17 years old. But then I was unfortunately struck with a lot of injuries, which made me retire after a few years."

Now 26 and having been away from the sport for over a year, Oudin is working on her next chapter. She's back at the US Open, but this time she's traded in her racket for a microphone. She's been doing work for the tournament's website and commentary for its satellite radio station. It's not exactly where she saw herself at this point in her life, but she's happy.

She had assumed she would play tennis until her early 30s and have made enough money to be financially sound, if not set for life. Then she would get married and have children. Instead, she's trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do next. In addition to trying her hand at reporting and commentating, she's coaching in her hometown in Georgia and says she's not quite sure which avenue she wants to pursue full time.

Oudin still gets recognized by fans around the grounds in Queens and at times wishes she was still out there competing. She didn't come to the tournament last year, so this feels like a homecoming of sorts. She's been able to interview many of her longtime friends in her new role and loves being able to catch up with them -- on and off camera.

But she's been surprised about just how much work goes into covering an event like the US Open.

"It is so different being on this side of things," she said. "I've gotten to see the other side of how this tournament goes -- the hours are a lot longer on the media side. I've had some 16-hour days. As a player, you get done for the day, you take care of business and then you get to go back and relax in the city. So working here, it's definitely a lot more tiring than playing."

In many ways, it felt like a full-circle moment when she did commentary for the Serena Williams-Venus Williams third-round match on Arthur Ashe -- the site of one of her biggest career triumphs.

"It really struck me calling that match," she said. "For me, it was a lot to be thrust in the spotlight so quickly and have my name mentioned with them all the time.

"I never knew that so many things came with being a tennis player. I just assumed you practiced, worked hard, but I didn't know it meant photo shoots and traveling all the time and all the appearances. It was exhausting. Everyone wanted a piece of me. I would hear people in the crowd, if I were losing a match, they would say, 'Come on, Melanie, get it together!' I would just feel like saying, 'You come out here and play!' It's so difficult.

"I was disappointed about having to retire, but now I'm really just excited to find out what's next. I feel like someone who just graduated college and has all these different paths in front of me. The beauty of retiring at 25 is you have plenty of time for a totally different second act."