U.S. women making early impression

PARIS -- Madison Keys was born four months after Venus Williams made her professional debut. Sunday night, the 18-year-old watched Williams during her nearly 3½-hour first-round battle with a sore back and Urszula Radwanska. Williams eventually lost, but Keys was very impressed at how hard the tennis great fought despite her condition.

And then Monday afternoon, Keys took the court and won her match against Japan's Misaki Doi in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2. Venus may have lost, but the American women are still making an early impression at the French Open -- and not just because of the other Williams sister.

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Sloane Stephens, who rolled past Karin Knapp 6-2, 7-5, is motived by her fellow American players.

There were 15 American women in the main draw and nine have won their first-round matches so far, with three left to play. So many won Monday (six) that Sloane Stephens lost track.

"I think everyone won today," Stephens said after beating Karin Knapp in straight sets. "Madison won. Melanie [Oudin] won. Bethanie [Mattek-Sands] won. A couple other girls won [Varvara Lepchenko and Vania King]. I think we're doing well. We're getting a lot of wins and everyone is moving up the rankings. We're pretty solid right now. We just want to keep that going."

Well, not quite everyone won, though it was nearly so. Christina McHale had 2-0 and 3-1 leads in the third set before dropping her match 6-7, 6-2, 4-6 to Jana Cepelova of Slovakia.

Add the victories by No. 1 ranked Serena Williams, Shelby Rogers and Mallory Burdette on Sunday, and it's a pretty impressive early start, especially on the red clay of Roland Garros. As Keys said, "I honestly have no idea if there is a red clay court anywhere in the states."

"It's funny because a couple of years ago everyone was asking me, 'Where's women's tennis [in the U.S.]?'" said Mattek-Sands. "And now here we are and we have the most in the main draw of any country. That's good."

Serena Williams said the quality of play among U.S. women has improved tremendously in the past year, and she should know. "I think we started to see then so many players just popping up left and right. Fifteen in the main draw? That's pretty awesome. It is a lot of players but they're all really young so there is still an opportunity to grow."

Mattek-Sands, who has been on the tour since 1999 when she was 14, was at a loss to explain the recent surge -- "That's a good question" -- but a critical mass of young players making each other better might be part of the answer. For instance, Keys, Rogers, Grace Min (who lost Sunday) and Jamie Hampton (who plays Tuesday) train together in Boca Raton, Fla.

"I just think we've all been working really hard and motivating each other while doing well," Keys said. "There is a really good atmosphere right now."

Stephens and others cited the atmosphere among the players as well. "We're all pretty close," Stephens said. "We all just want to get better and motivate each other. It's a good thing."

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Madison Keys is one of nine American women who have won their first-round matches so far.

"It's definitely a confidence booster to have so many great Americans out there," Burdette said. "I think we're all pushing each other and that's exactly what we need for American tennis."

Matttek-Sands praised Keys' serve, McHale's consistency and Oudin's recent play. "Melanie is coming on strong. She wasn't winning there for a while, but I think she's got her confidence back. She grinds it out, and she's not afraid of power players. Lauren Davis is another one. I think a lot of people go into a match and think, 'This is a little girl,' and kind of underestimate her a bit."

And then there is Stephens, who beat Serena in Melbourne and is ranked 17th. "She's done the best of all of them," Mattek-Sands said. "Her game is huge."

Asked to name the player with the most upside, Rogers replied, "I don't think I could pick one, to be honest with you. I mean, we're all doing our own things and got really great potential. Not one of us plays the same way, so it's kind of everyone blossoming in different ways at different times at different speeds. I think as a whole we're going to do really great things."

Of course, they all have a long way to go to match the Williams' success. But at least there are a lot of them, and they're heading in the right direction.

"It makes us feel like we're moving in the right direction," Keys said, "but it also makes us feel like we want more. It just motivates us to keep working hard."

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