The more balls Melanie Oudin ran down at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows last season, the more the world was curious.
Where did this 17-year-old upstart come from? Marietta, yes, that much was in all the bios. But where was that game — that tenacious, exuberant, breath-of-fresh-air game — honed?
Not at any of the usual tennis puppy mills — no Bollettieri academy nor United States Tennis Association training mecca down in Florida.
Oh, they tried to lure her away from home, with promises of the newest facilities and the trendiest coaching.
But "I've always wanted to stay here," she said of the Racquet Club of the South (RCS) in Norcross.
"Sometimes, the USTA was on me a little bit about going to train at [its national training site in] Boca Raton, but I never wanted to. I've been with Brian [de Villiers, her coach] since I was 9, so not like I could just switch coaches right away. We have a great relationship. I had to let everyone know that's how it's going to be. I'm not looking for anything else."
It sounds swank enough, with the appropriate European spelling. But in fact, the Racquet Club was kind of a dump as recently as two years ago. Now, it boasts a million-dollar facelift, a burgeoning juniors program, a revitalized membership and a designation as one of two USTA regional training facilities in the country.
The profiles of Oudin and the club have risen in synch, each one boosting the other.
The club is the significantly older of the two, founded in 1974. Time was not kind to it. One management group after another came through, vowing to renew the place, but none seemed capable of following through.
"They all failed," said Steve Gareleck, the money man behind a group that took over running the club in September, 2008.
This is what the new management found when it arrived: "Most of the ceiling tiles (on the clubhouse) were gone. The carpet was 15-20 years old, with stains and smells. All the power was bad. The plumbing was bad. There were hundreds of leaks in the roof (atop the indoor courts). When it was pouring outside, it was pouring inside. The grounds were in shambles. The courts were in bad condition."
Gareleck is one of a four-man group that leases the club from a charitable arm of the USTA. He is joined on the business side by Remington Reynolds, with de Villiers and former ATP pro and coach Grant Stafford handling tennis matters.
After the group invested more than a million dollars in improvements, the eight indoor courts were actually water tight again. It added six reduced-scale QuickStart courts to help draw young beginners, built two platform tennis courts, then resurfaced nearly all the 20 outdoor hard courts and four clay courts. The smelly carpet became landfill.
"I played tournaments here before we actually started training here, and it was pretty run down," said Oudin, who began playing out of the RCS in 2007. "The facility has gotten better and better. The courts have gotten better. The restaurant and the gym, everything has improved."
Her breakthrough 2009 — getting to the fourth round at Wimbledon, the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open and becoming the third-highest ranked American woman — has lent a new kind of credibility to the place. There is an undeniable Oudin bump at work.
"I think I helped a good bit," she said. "Since the U.S. Open, people want to know where I train, and parents want their younger girls to come here and see if they can get the same kind of coaching I've had."
Membership was around 120 paying members in '08, said Gareleck. The club now reports 450 adult and junior members. Oudin was part of a junior group that originally numbered only nine players. There are now almost 250 juniors playing out of the RCS.
Oudin's meteoric rise is the surprise part of the plan to bring back the RCS. Other elements were more methodically plotted.
"You had to first make the club a beautiful place," Gareleck said.
"And you had to bring energy back. To do that, you've got to have a great junior program. Once there's energy here and things are happening, people want to be around that energy.
"And you had to have great programming for the kids and the adults."
Atlanta is a well-known tennis hotbed — every subdivision worth its homeowner fees has its own courts, and most of those courts host Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association and USTA teams.
With all those places to play and all that ready-made competition, the RCS had to offer something more. One niche it looks to fill is that of an elite training facility, a breeding ground for young stars. Its tennis academy features a full educational program as well as the on-court instruction. Through a foundation, the club hopes to build more scholarships for talented kids whose families don't have the resources to develop their skills.
Gareleck is dismissive of the training kids generally get in the setting of the omnipresent neighborhood court, saying it has stifled world-class player development in what should be a fertile area.
"The problem with Atlanta is, anybody who is 18 to 25 years old who played college tennis can become a tennis pro without any training," he said. "They don't know how to teach properly. And most of the kids just want to play. For great kids, you have to have great coaches, and they cost a lot of money."
The USTA, which took over the RCS property in 1995, designated it a national training site in early 2009. With that designation comes the charge to provide high-caliber coaching to high-caliber young players, and help breathe a little life into American tennis.
"Our goal is to make this into a successful tennis club with great junior tennis," said John Callen, executive director of USTA Southern. "The current group has been absolutely fabulous. It sees the vision of what [the club] can be."
In that vision, the Racquet Club of the South would be a place that produces more players off the Oudin mold — female and male — while keeping Oudin competitive and content.
So far, the latter challenge is being met. "I'm happy with everything," Oudin said. "I want Brian as my coach, and I like the kids here. This is like my home."
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