Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Melanie Oudin becomes "America's Sweetheart"

The popularity of Melanie Oudin, a 17 year old professional tennis player from Marietta, GA, has skyrocketed this past week. Oudin, ranked 70th in the world, shocked US Open fans with her consecutive victories over Russian all-stars Elena Dementieva (4), Maria Sharapova (29), and Nadia Petrova (13). She will play Caroline Wozniacki (9) of Denmark tonight.

As a tennis fan, I have been totally energized by Oudin's performance. It's always exciting to see an underdog win and it has been a long time since a young American woman made an impact in a sport that has lately been dominated by Russians and Eastern Europeans (alas, tennis gets me a bit nationalist). I love Venus and Serena Williams, but they are often the only American women in the top 50 and they are aging (by tennis standards, that is). I am happy to see a new generation emerge. In fact, Oudin is the youngest woman to make it to the US Open quarterfinals since Serena Williams made it in 1999.

The media coverage of Oudin quickly began to irk me, however, especially when compared to the general attitude of sports reporters towards Venus and Serena Williams. With constant allusions to being "All-American" and "America's Sweetheart," Oudin is no longer just praised for being a remarkable athlete but for being blonde, small, and cute. Intern Katy at Jezebel has been doing a wonderful job unpacking this phenomenom, covering the story with an initial post and following up today with a more in-depth analysis of the race and class issues at play.

I urge you to read both pieces, as Katy and the Jezebel commenters hit the nail right on the head: Oudin is being celebrated as "America's sweetheart" because she is young, blonde, and WHITE. The Williams sisters rose to prominence with a remarkable story: raised in a low income neighborhood in Compton, CA, they became not only the most successful black female tennis players in history, but two of the most success female players ever. Yet despite (or because of) their success, they are often accused of being arrogant, selfish, petty, emotional, or any number of unflattering adjectives. They have never been referred to as sweethearts. The comparison between their experience and that of Oudin this past week is pretty telling.

I will still root for Oudin this week and relish her victories. Maybe we will even see a Melanie Oudin-Serena Williams final at the Open next week. That would be truly All-American.

Image via mrlaugh

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