Sunday, December 13, 2020

U.S. tennis--alive and (very) well

I don't usually write much about USA tennis because my interest in women's tennis is global, but the U.S. situation is quite interesting at this point, and is worth discussing. Over the years, many fans and onlookers have asked "What will happen when the Williams sisters retire?," "Who will 'succeed' Serena Williams (as if)?," and "Why doesn't the USA have more top players?"

Then along came Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, and--while the landscape didn't shift--it did become more spacious. Keys has yet to win a major, but her back-to-back Charleston-Cincinnati victory run in 2019 was quite impressive. Stephens, of course, won the U.S. Open in 2017 (Keys, of course, was the runner-up). An unpredictable player, Stephens could make another big run very soon--or not.

With Serena Williams still in the mix, and Keys and Stephens climbing up the rankings, the USA scene looked solid. But here's the thing about tennis--just when fans and the media assume they know who's going to do what, when--someone sneaks in and takes a place at the front of the line. This time around, that someone is Sofia Kenin. 

Fans saw Kenin in Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) play, and got a taste of her superior brand of mental strength. In Cincinnati in 2019, she made it to the semifinals. Kenin lost to Keys in the third round of the U.S. Open, but came back in 2020 and won the Australian Open, defeating Ash Barty in the semifinals and Garbine Muguruza in the final. She went on another big run at the French Open (not a tournament at which she was expecting to excel), but lost in the final to Polish force of nature Iga Swiatek (also, having an injured leg certainly didn't help).

While Sofia Kenin is undeniably the top U.S. star (and also WTA Player of the Year) at this time, she wasn't the only one insisting on becoming a force. Jennifer Brady started 2020 with a bang, getting victories over Maria Sharapova, Ash Barty, Elina Svitolina, and Garbine Muguruza. She was the only undefeated player at the exhibition even that was played in Charleston, and she went on to win in Lexington. Brady made it all the way to the semifinals at the U.S. Open, where she lost to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

The 25-year-old, believing that she needed to do something different in order to meet her potential, spent the 2019 off-season training in Germany, and it paid off. 

Finally, there's Coco Gauff, who turned pro only two years ago and is only sixteen years old, but she has clearly announced herself on the tour. The former junior world number 1 won the 2019 Linz tournament, and--with Caty McNally--has won two doubles tournaments. As a qualifier (the youngest in history) she reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2019, taking out both Venus Williams and Palona Hercog. Her defeat was at the hands of eventual champion Simona Halep.

Those are the current stars, but there are other very good stories. Late in her career, Alison Riske has experienced a resurgence. And--while things may not have gone that well for her in 2020--Amanda Anisimova is definitely a player with great potential, and I believe that she will impress us even more in the next year or so. Then there's Danielle Collins, who reached the quarterfinals of the French Open this year, taking out 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza.

The USA won Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) in 2017, and should be quite competitive when play resumes.

Here are the current WTA rankings for the top U.S. players:

Sofia Kenin (4)
Serena Williams (11)
Madison Keys (16)
Alison Riske (26)
Amanda Anisimova (30)
Sloane Stephens (39)
Danielle Collins (45)
Coco Gauff (48)