The other day, Laura the Tennis Pro brought me to the US Open. Obsessed as I am about tennis, I rarely watch it played on TV and I’ve never been to a professional tennis match before. She asked me who I wanted to watch and I told her I didn’t even know.
We ended up going to Arthur Ashe Stadium first and watching a match between Elena Dementieva and Melanie Oudin. It was clear right away that the crowd was rooting for Oudin, the bright-eyed 17-year-old and I assumed it was because she was American. So I started rooting for her too.
I liked her subdued little outfit and her funky sneakers. And I especially liked her understated fist pump and the “Come on!” that popped out of her, in a voice both very big and very little, every time she won a point.
When she won that match, she was nearly speechless during the courtside interview. She thanked the crowd for cheering her on. She said it helped.
That was the first time I got really choked up over Oudin. There was this moment when she was down a few points and the whole stadium just swelled up in applause in an attempt to bolster her through the next point. It was everyone’s way of saying, “It’s ok. You can do this. We’re right here with you.”
It reminded me of this time when my son was about five years old. He was in a play and a girl came out to sing her solo and she was so scared she could barely stand up straight. She croaked out the song with tears streaming down her face, her body rigid in the determination it took to just get through this moment. The audience held it’s collective breath for her and when she was through erupted into a most amazing ovation.
People pulling for people. That always makes me cry.
Yesterday I watched Oudin in a match against Maria Sharapova. I turned on the TV somewhere in the middle of the second set and found myself surprised at how much enthusiasm I was able to muster for TV sports. When Oudin won this match the interviewer spent a little more time with her. Not just “how does it feel?” but also asked her to talk specifically about her drive and ambition.
We all sit and wait for those morsels, don’t we? What’s going on in there that’s driving someone to be the best? That enables a 5-year-old to root herself stoically to a stage and get through a solo if it’s the last thing she’ll do?
But like the little soloist, Oudin is a kid. She hasn’t lived long enough to dish out a satisfying amount of self-reflection. She starts talking about her childhood, when she would barrel around the house knocking things over, and you’re not really sure if she’s offering up the irony of early clumsiness or spinning some metaphor about never letting anything stand in her way.
In the end she just beamed up at the crowd with gratitude. “Thank you so much for cheering for me,” she said. Seventeen years old, moment of glory, spending it giving thanks. There’s something about her that takes my breath away.