Who Will Rule American Tennis After The Williams Sisters?
ROME -- At some point down the road, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, American women's tennis will be a world without Venus and Serena Williams.
Long have the Williams sisters dominated this sport in the United States: Venus, a former world No. 1 and seven-time major champion; and Serena, the current and longtime world No. 1 who won her 19th Grand Slam in January.
But as of this week, 13 American women are ranked in the top 100, 11 who are not named "Williams" and six who are 23 or younger, including a couple of Australian Open semifinalists in 22-year-old Sloane Stephens (2013) and 20-year-old Madison Keys (2015).
It's a group shooting to help the red, white and blue fly high in the realm of the fuzzy yellow ball again. And last week in Rome, Serena said there is strength in numbers.
"When I was coming up, there were so many Americans and my goal was to be the best among them, which meant I had to be No. 1 [in the world]," said Williams, 33, who will chase a 20th Grand Slam in Paris beginning Sunday. "When you have so many people from one country, you want to stand out and be the best. I think it's a great way for the young American girls to push each other to try and be the best."
Stephens famously wore the next "It Girl" tiara in 2013, when she upset Serena en route to the Australian Open semifinals. But more than two years later she's still looking for her first WTA title and her ranking has fallen from a career-high 11th to 41st. And now Keys, who is ranked 16th, along with Christina McHale, Alison Riske, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Brengle, to name a few, are in for the chase as well.
But who rises above all others when the sisters do decide to walk away?
"I think everyone is focusing on themselves," Keys said last week in Rome. "I would love for it to be myself. I think there's a ton of girls that can play really well: Alison; Varvara [Lepchenko]. Lauren [Davis] has had good results; Christina was top-25 at one point; and Sloane is an unbelievable athlete and a great tennis player."
The safest answer is "everyone," but Keys is undoubtedly the one with the most raw talent: Her booming groundstrokes are a page out of the Williamses' book, and she's hired a coach in American Lindsay Davenport, another former world No. 1, to rein in her raw power so Keys might reign over women's tennis one day.
"Actually, I think it's going to be whoever puts it all together -- every facet of their game -- that is going to be the one who has the best career," Keys said.
"We're all working extremely hard to try and push through, try and break through," said McHale, 23, who is ranked 55th. The New Jersey native is a former world No. 24 who made the quarterfinals in Rome last week, the result best of any American in singles. (Serena pulled out of her third-round match versus McHale with an elbow injury.)
"I've never really thought about [who might be the best]," said Riske, 24.
Two teenagers -- Taylor Townsend, 19 and ranked 130th, and CiCi Bellis, 16 and ranked 170th -- have had early success in their careers on the Grand Slam stage. Townsend returns to Paris after a run to the third round a year ago and Bellis, the breakoutstory of the 2014 US Open, will be the No. 3 seed in the girls' junior event.
Success has come in a sudden and recent wave for Brengle, 25, who was ranked outside the top 150 a year ago at this time. Now she's the No. 6 American behind Serena, Venus, Keys, Lepchenko and Vandeweghe.
"I think there's a fantastic group of American women playing on tour right now, so if there's a 'next big thing,' it's this entire group playing right now," she said. "It's all very positive for the future of the sport in the U.S."
"It's hard for me or anyone to say who's going to be the next great American player," wrote Vandeweghe in an email, the No. 33 having stayed home from Rome. "I hope it will be me, but all I can do to get there is to put in purposeful work day in and day out."
Vandeweghe continued: "For me, it's good to see a lot of Americans in the top 100. But my drive comes from within. I had to learn that. When I first started on the tour and saw some of my peers doing better than I was, [it] was a bit discouraging. But now that I've had time to mature, I've accepted that the only things I can control are what I do for myself to improve my tennis game. That has helped me a lot."
One other American teen will be in the main draw in Paris starting Sunday, wild card Louisa Chirico, 19. Who would the Long Island native, ranked 114th in the world, like to face in the first round there?
"This is maybe a weird answer, but I would actually like the opportunity to play Serena," a timid-sounding Chirico told reporters on a conference call last week, laughing a little as she answered. "Just because ... you never know. I think she's obviously one of the best around right now. It would be such a great opportunity to play her just to see what the level is like, how she competes and plays. It would be such an honor to play against her."
Playing against her is one thing. But taking the handoff? That's something that remains to be seen for Chirico and all the other young Americans in Paris and beyond.