Young player proves power, talent on court

Rick Wiltfong

Rick Wiltfong

By Amber Greviskes

A break comes in the match and 19-year-old professional Scott Oudsema heads to his bench to the right of the umpire’s chair. He takes a long drink of water. His white shirt, covered in sweat sticks to his 6-foot-4 frame. He quickly takes off his white hat, which he wears backwards on his head covering his unkempt blond hair. He changes into another shirt and heads back to the court. Despite losing momentum and dropping the second set, Oudsema does not look intimidated. Instead, he walks with a quiet air of confidence, conveying a self-assuredness, uncommon in others his age. His youth, however, is not at all uncommon in the professional ranks anymore. He has already experienced success in both singles and doubles in challenger and future tournaments, which serve as stepping stones to the ATP tour – the highest level of professional tennis.

Oudsema’s promising career started with doubles semifinals appearances at futures tournaments in Tampa and Key Biscayne, Fla. He reached the doubles final at the Lubbock, Texas, Challenger with Jan-Michael Gambill. In the main draw of the U.S. Open doubles tournament, Oudsema and then-18-year-old Alex Kuznetsov advanced to the second round. His singles game hit its stride in the summer with quarterfinals appearances at the Auburn, Calif., Futures Tournament and the 2005 Forest Hills Grass Court Classic in Forest Hills, NY. He also reached the semifinals of the Tarzana, Calif., Challenger. However, his best singles finish came at the Waco, Texas, Futures Tournament, where he advanced to the finals before losing to 2004 NCAA singles champion Benjamin Becker.

But that was in the past. The only match that matters, right now, is the one taking place at the Atkins Tennis Center. Oudsema is utilizing his fast, powerful and deadly accurate serve to gain control of the match against Todd Widom. Oudsema capitalizes on his opportunities to use his explosive forehand. Widom, despite his determination and spirit, cannot overtake the teenager from southwestern Michigan as Oudsema pulls away from the match with a 7-6 (12), 4-6, 6-4 victory. Some men would be satisfied to rest on their laurels following their victory; however, Oudsema is not one of them.

Despite playing a long match, Oudsema will be at the tennis center for a majority of the day. He will practice again in the late afternoon probably with Phillip Simmonds, his doubles partner. Throughout the week, Simmonds and Oudsema appear virtually inseparable. During their doubles matches, the men seem to move as one, even through their water breaks, when Oudsema grabs the red sports drink from under their bench as Simmonds reaches for the blue one. Each man instinctively knows what the other will do having learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Oudsema misses a first serve, but a glance and a few words from Simmonds and he is ready to serve again, bouncing the tennis ball with a sharp, staccato sound before hitting it over the net, into the service box on the opposite side of the court. Luckily, for the duo, over the years they have played together, their games have meshed well. Quick, agile Simmonds seems as though he is everywhere on the court when he needs to hit a return, while Oudsema’s powerful serve propels the team. Throughout their success, the men’s friendship has become one of their strongest assets.

“We know what to expect at different points at the match. It is always fun to play with someone that is one of your friends that you can relate with,” Oudsema said.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Their friendship is not only evident on the court; the men are friends off the court as well. They sit in the second-floor balcony on a set of silver, metal bleachers overlooking court one where former Illinois standout Rajeev Ram faces the tournament’s top-seeded singles player, Hyung-Taik Lee. While they watch the match, the men split a pizza with Kuznetsov, who is also competing in the tournament. Despite the men’s hectic schedules, which can include traveling up to 42 weeks per year as their careers take off, they are well prepared for the demands of being on the road. Many of the rookies have competed throughout the world, at the Grand Slam junior tournaments, at various European junior circuit events and at tournaments in Asia. In Champaign, Oudsema is the only one to reach the second round in doubles, but it does not seem to matter.

“We’re all good buddies. We all spend a lot of time together – maybe a little bit too much time together – but we all enjoy each other’s company, so we have a good time on the road,” Oudsema said.

There will be time to make improvements. Scott Oudsema, after all, is just 19-years-old. Lounging in one of the chairs on the balcony following his afternoon loss to Australian Chris Guccione, he looks like any other American teenager. He wears baggy, slightly faded, ripped jeans and a Detroit Pistons home basketball jersey under a black wool coat. He has already bought courtside tickets to one of the team’s games for the week after the Champaign tournament. Oudsema is not just a professional basketball fan though, he cheers for Michigan State, his father’s alma mater. He likes most sports and follows some of his peer’s collegiate tennis results. Besides playing doubles with Gonzales, he has competed at tournaments against the majority of the underclassmen in the Illinois lineup. Unlike the Illini athletes who checker their appearances at the tennis center with classes, exams and study sessions, Oudsema is completely focused on tennis. He likes to have his fair share of fun, but has to get adequate sleep during the tournament to stave off fatigue; he cannot stay out too late, like typical college students. A mischievous, taunting, smile creeps across his face as small dimples form in the indents of his cheeks

“You’ve got to stick to a routine, but I can’t say that I don’t have my fun,” he said.

His eyes dart back and forth as he watches the tennis ball bounce on the opposite sides of the court. His hair is covered with a black hat. He yawns. Both of his singles matches were scheduled for noon, which forced him to get up at 9 a.m., almost an hour earlier than he normally would if he were not scheduled to play. Although he is initially quiet, as the matches he is watching progress, he becomes more talkative, complimenting his competitors’ strong points. He knows he will need to work hard to make another jump in the world rankings and string together more consistent results. Despite his growing success, his approach to his career is simple.

“If you have a good time and if you’re practicing hard, then things will come and you’ll end up doing what you like to do.”

For Oudsema, the future looks bright. He has committed to endorse Polo Ralph Lauren tennis apparel, appearing in advertising campaigns. He appears nonchalant about his brief modeling experiences. “I’m not a model. I’m a tennis player. Period,” he says laughing and blushing slightly. Although he is a professional athlete, he finds the idea of celebrity slightly disconcerting. Unlike many athletes who say they will use school as a back-up plan if their tennis careers do not work out, Oudsema plans to head to college regardless of his success. What, he will do after that is unknown. More than likely, he says, he will be like any other student trying to figure out what he wants to do, a year or two into college. For now, he carries himself with the aura of confidence of a young man on the verge of a breakout year. He is, after all, just 19.