SEATTLE – There was Billie Jean King before any of them. Then Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The reigns of Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport followed, and then, of course, Venus and Serena Williams.
But as Serena started setting records for Grand Slams, a Grand Void appeared to be coming.
Where exactly were the U.S. tennis stars who were going to assume their predecessors’ throne?
It was a legitimate concern for American fans who wanted to see their compatriots sit at the top. Venus is 39, Serena is 38, and the latter hasn’t won a set in her last four appearances in Grand Slam finals.
But it appears help is on the way – just in the nick of time.
The Fed Cup coming to Everett this Friday and Saturday isn’t just a chance for fans to see international team tennis – it’s a chance to see the future of the women’s game.
Not only can fans watch Serena Williams – perhaps the greatest female athlete ever – but they can also watch up-and-comers with the talent to dominate their own generation.
World No. 7 Sofia Kenin, 21, just won the Australian Open. Coco Gauff, 15, has beaten Venus (who won’t be in Everett) twice and last month upset No. 3 Naomi Osaka in Melbourne.
Alison Riske, 29, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 34, round out the five-player lineup, but the excitement is in the youth.
Or maybe more accurately – the relief is in the youth.
As fivethirtyeight.com wrote a few days ago, the future of American women’s tennis looked tenuous not so long ago. Sloane Stephens, 26, won the U.S. Open in 2017, but then eight Grand Slams passed without a female American winner.
That hadn’t happened since 1998. And Stephens has since dropped to No. 35 in the world. Would women’s tennis be going the way of the men’s game, where there hasn’t been an American Grand Slam winner since Andy Roddick captured the U.S. Open in 2003?
It probably was never going to be that extreme – particularly given the influence the Williams sisters have had on younger players. But it looked like there might be a drop-off.
Now, thanks to Kenin and Gauff, it looks like there may be a new liftoff.
“What do you think about the state of American tennis in the women’s game?” I asked Gauff on Tuesday.
“We’re doing pretty well if I may so myself. I would say we’re on top for sure,” Gauff said. “A lot of us are having good runs. A lot of us are prospering.”
Twenty two of the top 100 female players in the world are American, which includes two in the top 10 (Kenin and Williams) and another two in the top 20 (24-year-old Madison Keys and Riske). Whether they will have staying power, however, is of some concern.
Remember CoCo Vandeweghe, the American who made two Grand Slam semifinals and three quarterfinals in 2017? She’s ranked 189th in the world after enduring an ankle injury in 2018. And bright as Stephens’ future looked at one point, she has been knocked out of the past two Grand Slams in the first round.
Given that Serena has made it to the finals in four of the past seven majors, she likely still has plenty of dominant tennis left. But what happens after that for American women’s tennis appears largely undetermined.
Riske was Tuesday asked how she felt about Gauff getting as much attention as she was despite not being old enough to drive. Her answer? It’s awesome.
“Anytime American tennis is being talked about, it’s a great thing,” Riske said. “I think we’re all really glad that America is on the map.”
Actually, it’s always been on the map. Now, the hope is that it can stay there.
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