The post-Serena Williams generation
WIMBLEDON, England -- At 31, Serena Williams is currently on one of the most impressive runs of her career and doesn't plan on going anywhere soon.
Williams has lost just three matches over the past year and will be going for her 33rd straight win when she faces French prospect Caroline Garcia in the second round of Wimbledon on Thursday.
"I want to go out in my peak. That's my goal," she said after winning the French Open. "But have I peaked yet?"
It's an ominious question for the rest of the field.But though there's no need for anyone to fill Williams' shoes just yet, a new generation of American women is already starting to follow in her footsteps. This year's Wimbledon began with 14 Americans in the women's draw, and five -- Williams, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Christina McHale and Alison Riske -- made it through to the second round. That's on the heels of an even better French Open, which featured 14 American women in the main draw and nine in the second round, the best of any nation.
"It seems like countries usually come up together," Keys said. "So it's great that this is kind of our time right now. I know we have a lot of women in the top 100. I know even the men are starting to show up a little bit more. I think it's great."
Keys is one of the big reasons why the U.S. tennis future looks bright. At 18 years and four months, she is the youngest player in the top 100, having rocketed more than 80 spots up the rankings to No. 52 since the beginning of the season. Playing her first full year on the WTA Tour, she defeated 2011 French Open champ Li Na on clay at the Mutua Madrid Open and has made the quarterfinals at three events, including at Birmingham on grass last week. Her run there included a two-set win over talented German Mona Barthel, who she will face again in her second-round match at Wimbledon on Thursday.
A slender 5-foot-10 with a big serve and forehand, Keys has worked on building her fitness over the past six months and improved her ability to stay in points. Even at the beginning of the year, Li suggested the teenager was already playing at a top-20 or top-15 level.
If Stephens has invited (sometimes controversial) comparisons to Serena during her rise, Keys might be compared to Venus, though the older Williams has better movement and counts her backhand as her stronger wing instead. Keys took up the game in the first place after seeing Venus in a tennis dress.
Like Venus, Keys is quiet, relaxed and ready to see the funny side of things.
"You know, I like to make everyone laugh," Keys said. "Don't really like tense moments. I definitely throw in a joke every once in a while."
On court, however, she'd rather be all business.
"I think for me sometimes if I allow myself to get too down on myself or if I let my emotions on the court more so, it doesn't help me," said the Illinois native, who now trains at the USTA Center in Boca Raton, Fla. "So I try to stay more serious and more focused on the court."
Although Keys and Stephens are currently the U.S.'s chief Grand Slam-winning hopes in a post-Serena WTA, the numbers suggest they will not lack compatriots in the draw. There are currently nine Americans in the top 100, more than any other nation. Serena, perched at No. 1, naturally leads the group. But most of the others are rising young players in their teens or early twenties, all at or near their career-high rankings.
They are led by No. 17 Stephens, 20, who is starting to rebuild her results after struggling in the wake of reaching the Australian Open semifinal earlier this year. No. 25 Jamie Hampton, 23, has made a strong climb this year despite two herniated discs in her back and produced good results during the grass season before falling to Stephens in the first round at this tournament. Keys is at a career-high No. 52 and clearly headed up. No. 68 Mallory Burdette, 22, is an NCAA champion who has been posting good WTA results since turning pro last year. No. 70 Christina McHale, 22, reached No. 24 last year and is starting to return to her solid, consistent self after being sidelined with mononucleosis. No. 85 Lauren Davis, 19, is a small but spirited player who has also made it into the top 100 as a teen -- an increasingly rare feat these days.
In this mix are a few veterans still pushing hard in their late twenties and early thirties. No. 29 Vavara Lepchenko, 27, cracked the top 20 last year and continues to produce solid showings. No. 34 Venus Williams, 33, is battling illness and injuries but remains determined to continue playing and can still produce impressive tennis when feeling well. No. 58 Bethanie Mattek, 28, has renewed her career after discovering several food allergies and finally enjoying an injury-free stretch.
"I think we all really encourage each other, which I think is why we've all been really doing well," said Keys. "We've been kind of feeding off each other."Many also train together at one the three national USTA facilities at Carson, Calif., Florida, and New York. That spurs them on at home. Keys, for example, cites the example of watching Hampton practice.
"Jamie, she's out there all the time," Keys said. "She just works really, really hard. I think that just kind of motivates me to work just as hard."
It also builds friendships that provide company on the road. These days, there's plenty of that.
"I just really love that being in different countries. We still have a support group, and there's people to be around," Keys said. "I think it would be very hard if there were just one or two of us the entire time we were here."
And though Serena clearly doesn't need any help carrying the banner for U.S. tennis, the American upsurge has also made it easier for her when it comes to fielding inquiries about her successors.
"I think it's great," Serena said. "I think for the past 12 months we've seen a lot of growth in American tennis. A couple years ago, when I was asked that question, I wasn't sure of the answer. But now I can answer that in so many different ways.
"There's so many great young American players."