The American women may be on the verge of something. What that something actually is has everything to do with performance and if we are to gauge the state of American women’s tennis based on one round of Grand Slam tennis, then the sky above Flushing Meadows is the limit.
Madison Keys dominated in her win over Jarmila Gajdosova with 23 winners, nine aces and only nine unforced errors. Sloane Stephens made easy work of Annika Beck (even if the stat sheet says it wasn’t the cleanest effort). And Nicole Gibbs, 21, in just her second Grand Slam defeated France's Caroline Garcia.
As good as they were, it was a 15-year-old, soon-to-be sophomore who upset this year’s Australian Open runner up. That would be Cici Bellis and she defeated Dominika Cibulkova, the 12th-ranked player in the world and a three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist in the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Bellis told Darren Cahill during the ESPN broadcast, "I’m still speechless right now. I have no words. It was definitely more about the experience. I was going to try and come out and do my best as always. I never thought I’d come out like this. I’ve always been a go-for-it [player]. Even if you lose, that’s the way to play.”
That was, without question, the highlight of the first round for the American women. It was also the highlight of the tournament through two days on either side of the draw. But unless the American women start making some moves deep into the Grand Slams, Bellis’ win will quickly fall off the vine.
No American woman—not even No. 1 Serena Williams—has reached beyond the fourth round in a Grand Slam in 2014. As the Williams sisters exit stage right, who will be around to pick up the mantle?
Looking back over the last 15 years gives you a sense that American tennis was Williams tennis and nothing else. Take the U.S. Open. You have to go back to 1998 to find an American not named Serena or Venus (Lindsey Davenport) to find a winner.
So it has been a dozen years since a non-Williams American has won any Grand Slam.
On Tuesday, Serena played perhaps the most promising of the American upstarts in 18-year-old Taylor Townsend in the first round of the U.S. Open. Serena, the No.1-ranked player in the world, did what she was supposed to do, winning 6-3, 6-1.
Townsend, to her credit, made waves when she reached the third round in the French Open earlier this year. Serena saw the future on the other side of the net: a big, strong bruiser of the tennis ball. Serena said in Sports Illustrated:
She's a lefty. I always wanted to be lefty. That just in general puts you on a whole new level as a player. She's a very aggressive player. She comes to the net. She makes her shots. You don't really see that in tennis so much. You see players that stay back and hug the baselines, as I do. But it's good, refreshing, and I think it's the future of tennis just by doing what she does.
Courtney Nguyen of Sports Illustrated noted that for the first time since the Williams sisters began their reign of dominance, there’s finally some talent for whom to pass the torch. Nguyen wrote:
It's been nearly 20 years since Serena and her sister Venus turned professional and the two are still the highest-ranked American women after a strong summer season brought Venus' ranking up to No. 20. The influx of young talent, like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, takes the pressure off Serena to fly the flag alone.
And that’s just it, Serena and Venus don’t have to wave that flag by themselves as they have the past 15 years. They're quickly reaching the point where they no longer can.
In other matches Tuesday featuring American women, Vania King, 25, defeated Francesca Schiavore. Coco Vandeweghe, 22, handled Donna Vekic. Christina Hale, 22, won, and so too did Shelby Rogers, 21, over Maryna Zanevska. It was Rogers’ first U.S. Open win (Rogers even defeated Eugenie Bouchard in Montreal and Sara Errani this summer).
The Williams sisters have a combined 24 Grand Slams between them (Serena has 17, Venus seven). They were/are world-class talents whose achievements will likely never be equaled by the younger, ascendent women. The Williams sisters left an indelible impression on the American athletic landscape, not just the tennis-scape.
The potential is there for the American women to keep the flame alive, though it will more closely resemble glowing embers versus the roaring bonfire the Williams sisters ignited.
It’s time one, two or three of these young women move into the second week to signal to the world, and their country, that there is life after Serena and Venus.