NEW YORK – The face of the U.S. Open bade farewell with one last beaming smile, bright enough to flush away the sense of anticlimax that gripped what had promised to become one of those New York sporting nights.
Her journey of discovery finally over, Melanie Oudin headed off into the evening, into this sleepless city packed with those who've made it and those who strive to.
Oudin arrived here two weeks ago as the latter, an anonymous wide-eyed hopeful with big dreams and yet no idea of what lay in store for her.
She left on Wednesday night having achieved in 10 days what some never manage in a lifetime: becoming the darling of New York thanks to her smile and spirit.
After treading a charmed path through a quartet of bigger, stronger and louder Russians, Oudin's adventure came to a sudden halt against graceful Danish star Caroline Wozniacki.
Melanie Oudin says it's hard to walk around without being recognized. "I’ve gone from being just a normal, like, tennis player to almost everyone in the United States knowing who I am now."
In Wozniacki, she was confronted by an opponent with more savvy than the collection of robots she had previously deciphered and tamed with the wit and wisdom that belied her tender years.
The impressive Wozniacki has climbed into the top 10 in the rankings thanks to a game without holes and a keen tennis mind capable of adaptation.
She didn't outplay Oudin by as much as the 6-2, 6-2 result suggests, yet she had the tools to keep the outcome firmly in her control even once nerves kicked in.
America's sweetheart gave her adoring legions some brief glimpses of hope, yet she couldn't connect on pivotal points. A chance to cut the first-set deficit to 5-3 and build some momentum went begging amid a spate of unforced errors, as did an opportunity to break for an early advantage in the second.
Oudin capitalized on only one of six break points and saw her own service brutalized, especially her weak second serve.
Flushing Meadows never fully lost its belief, a product perhaps of three straight come-from-behind victories that stirred the senses and sparked mass affection for this personable 17-year-old with the smile of an angel and the heart of a lion.
There was a softer side to this crowd, too. They wanted to scream and shout and get behind Oudin, but they also reached their hearts out to this tiny pocket of tennis tenacity from Marietta, Ga.
They felt her loss keenly, but also took this story for what it was: a wonderful tale that eventually had to end.
The 70th-ranked player in the world isn't supposed to play like she did against fourth seed Elena Dementieva, three-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova and tough veteran Nadia Petrova. Oudin is a great talent, yet there are still some gaps that need to be resolved.
She could not get her game into gear here on Wednesday, somewhat befuddled by Wozniacki's looping deliveries that regularly rose way above head height.
It was a clever tactic from the Scandinavian, refusing to indulge the counter-punching spirit like the four others before her.
This time the crowd couldn't lift Oudin on its shoulders. Her fight and courage weren't enough to cope with Wozniacki's calm head and silky technique.
"I still have a lot to learn," said Oudin. "I have learned these two weeks that I can beat any player if I believe in myself, but I was a bit mentally fragile tonight.
"Caroline made me like that. I got frustrated because she was so consistent and I always had to hit a winner."
And so the whirlwind of interviews, paparazzi, meetings with Roger Federer and countless other experiences ended – all this for a girl whose favorite activities include playing cards with her grandmother and messing around with her Nintendo Wii.
Oudin may never be fully at ease with the celebrity world, but if her game continues to grow, she can survive in this tough business thanks to her love of the game.
"I will never think of myself as a celebrity," she said. "It has been weird going from being just another tennis player to someone that almost everyone in America has heard of.
"But I'm still just me, I can't see myself any different because I've never had that. I never think about that when I am on court."
Oudin will be back, make no mistake about that. This is not a teenage prodigy straight from the production line and without a personality.
America fell in love with her for being herself, and it looks forward to the next installment in her fairytale.