Why is it the American women are thriving at the US Open?
NEW YORK -- One year ago, Sloane Stephens watched the US Open from home after a stress fracture in her right foot forced her to withdraw from the tournament and eventually sidelined her for nearly a year.
Tuesday afternoon, she became the first American woman not named Williams to reach the semifinals in this event in 13 years.
Four hours later, Venus Williams joined her there.
"It's incredible. If someone would have told me when I started [my comeback] at Wimbledon that I'd be in the semifinals or making three semifinals back-to-back, I would have said they're crazy," Stephens said after defeating 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova in three sets. "I'm just happy to be playing really well and happy that my foot is good and I don't have any pain."
With Williams' win Tuesday night, the 37-year-old closed out the first day of what, thanks to the luck of the draw, American tennis fans hope will be a quarterfinal sweep by American players. CoCo Vandeweghe plays world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys plays Kaia Kanepi on Wednesday. Wins by those two would deliver the first all-USA semifinal at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 1985.
"It's been a great two weeks for American tennis," Williams said after her match. "Seeing all the American players in the draw and all of them advancing so deep and competing so well. ... All I have known all my life was great American players. So it's great to see this resurgence, and I hope it can continue."
When Stephens was asked in her postmatch news conference about the impressive surge by American women, she began to answer and then asked if anyone knew exactly how many U.S. women are currently ranked in the top 100. She wasn't quizzing the media. She wanted to fact-check herself. She said she believed there were 14, and she was correct.
No one answered. So again, she pressed the press.
"Does someone know?" she asked, scanning the room. "Someone knows. How many? How many women are in the top 100 -- U.S. women?"
"Really? Out of all you people, no one knows?" she said. "This is ridiculous."
Her comments, of course, elicited laughter. But what the moment underlined was not the unpreparedness of the journalists in the room but the fact that this storyline seems to have snuck up on almost everyone in New York. While the sport's experts have been asking -- quite honestly, for years -- when the next generation of American greats would materialize and wondering what is taking so long, four American women powered their way into the US Open quarterfinals. And not one of them is named Serena Williams.
"These are the girls who were inspired by the Williams sisters," said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who finished runner-up to Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1985. "Serena and Venus are great role models because they transcended tennis. Now we're seeing their influence, and we've been waiting for that.
"When you look at CoCo, Madison, Sloane, you have three exceptional athletes. Then you compare them to [Angelique] Kerber and [Agnieszka] Radwanska and [Caroline] Wozniacki, the other top-10 players, and it's like, these American women should be up there with them because of their athleticism. That's starting to click now."
As any great player knows, it takes more than athleticism and an inspired dream to arrive -- and remain -- in the top 10, or even the top 100, in the world. Serena and Venus drew these women to the game and made them believe excellence was possible, but it has taken emotional maturity, experience and seeing their peers succeed to give them the belief that they can be the next American Grand Slam champion.
"We've talked about Madison and Sloan and Coco for a while," former world No. 4 and ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said. "They've always had the talent. Now they're' putting it all together. I think for Sloan and Madison, having time off with their injuries and surgeries has given them perspective.
"It's made them smarter and better. If something gets taken away from you because of injury, it makes you appreciate playing. You can't be content and be a champion."
Success, as they say, breeds success. Keys watched Vandeweghe win her fourth-round match Monday and then came out on fire for hers. Stephens watched both matches and then gritted out a three-setter Tuesday afternoon to secure a spot in the semis, in which she will face Williams.
"I think these three players really push each other," said four-time Grand Slam doubles champ Rennae Stubbs, who is in New York working as a TV reporter. "If one of them is winning, they all feel they can achieve that, too."
Analysts such as Evert and Stubbs have been talking about the women as a collective -- not focusing on any one of them as the Next Great Hope.
"When each of them had their own success, they didn't necessarily do well afterward," Evert said. "Now everyone is talking about all of them in a group and not just singling out one of them."
But this week, they're on their own, as only one woman can win the final Slam of the year.
"I don't know that all four women will make the semis, but I think we will have an all-American final," Fernandez said. "And an all-American final without Serena -- that would be a huge day for American tennis."