Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rally 'Round the Flag

There is cause for optimism (Recommendation: remain cautiously optimistic to avoid future fallout.) for American women's tennis fans. Now I know some of you are predisposed to finding what's bad in American tennis, but with this burgeoning crop of young tennis players, there is something for everyone to get happy about.

The two youngest players left in the US Open women's singles draw, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are from the U.S. Additionally, the youngest player to participate in the women's draw, 16-year-old Madison Keys raised a lot of eyebrows with her near upset of No. 27 seed Lucie Safarova in the 2nd round.

All told, five Americans have reached the third round of the US Open for the first time since 2004, and four of the five are younger than 22.

Do any of them have the potential to win Grand Slams? Hard to say. Will there be life in American women's tennis after Serena and Venus? Apparently so.

Here's a bit of info on this burgeoning crop of young Americans:

1. Madison Keys— Keys was the youngest player in the draw, and she grabbed her first Grand Slam win when she defeated the oldest player in the draw, American Jill Craybas. Lindsay Davenport called Keys the most likely to win a Slam of all the young Americans, citing her size, athleticism, and impressive raw power. Lucie Safarova, who barely got by Keys in the second round, also had high praise for her. "She's 16 years old and is already for sure playing at a top 50 level," she said.

2. Christina McHale— McHale has been making noise all season, but her 2nd round performance against No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli was a real coming out party for the Teaneck, N.J. native. For her to win a well-played match at a Grand Slam against a tenacious player like Bartoli speaks volumes about her potential. She may not pack the wallop of a Keys, but McHale is an enterprising young player who is fit, mobile and intense. While other young players impress with their power or athleticism, McHale impresses with her desire and her mental toughness. She may not be world-beater material, but she could be a very solid pro who spends a lot of time in the top 30 someday.

3. Sloane Stephens— Sloane Stephens has been through a lot in her 18 years on the planet. She grew up never knowing her father, only to become close with him after she turned 13, then lose him again when he died in a car accident in 2009. Because of all this, Stephens is wise beyond her years, and her poise is finally showing through on the Grand Slam stage. She's effortless and smooth behind the baseline, with nice mechanics and deceptive power, but she'll have to learn how to take time away from her opponents by stepping inside the baseline and playing more aggressive tennis to become a consistent threat on the WTA tour.

4. Vania King—The doubles phenom is through to the 3rd round in a Grand Slam for the third time in her career. She'll always be challenged due to her diminutive stature (doesn't the WTA's listing for her at 5'5" 128 seem generous?), but Vania is a solid player with a long career still in front of her.

5. Irina Falconi—Who was that wild woman with an American flag draped around her yesterday on Arthur Ashe? Was it the ghost of Melanie Oudin? No, it was Irina Falconi. "I strongly believe in all that is U.S.A," said the Ecuadorian-born 21-year-old, "and I wanted to represent it and show the world that it's coming. It's coming. No need to wait any longer."

Stay tuned to the third round to see if Falconi can back up her words.

Here are the 3rd round match ups for the Americans:

McHale vs. Kirilenko
Falconi vs. Lisicki
King vs. Wozniacki
Williams vs. Azarenka
Stephens vs. Ivanovic. 

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