Stephens, McHale usher in youth movement
NEW YORK -- Never mind all that talk about the lack of American tennis talent coming up.
"We're ready to go to the top, baby!" Sloane Stephens bellowed Thursday after she beat No. 23 seed Shahar Peer of Israel, 6-1, 7-6 (4), to join the wave of young American women who have moved into the third round of the U.S. Open. Irina Falconi and Christina McHale are also on to the third round for the first time in their young careers. Including three-time champion Serena Williams and Vania King, the Americans have five women in the final 32.
The third round is hardly the top of the game, but this tournament represents an important beginning in the search for successors to standard setters Venus and Serena Williams. The American future might not have arrived just yet, but there are finally signs that it is on the way. In addition to the promising play of McHale and Falconi, the U.S. Open was a strong tournament for 19-year-old Coco Vandeweghe, who won a main-draw Grand Slam match for the first time in her career, and Madison Keys, a 16-year-old who lost in the second round but ultimately might be the best of the young players coming up.
"We've kind of felt that this was going to come," said Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association and an ESPN commentator. "Obviously I'm not going to say I knew this was going to happen at the U.S. Open, but we knew we had a really good group coming along."
Stephens, 18 and ranked No. 106, showed signs she was ready to raise her game this summer. She reached the quarterfinals at a tournament in Carlsbad, Calif., in August, beating then-No. 20 Julia Goerges to post her first victory over a top-20 player. Stephens was a wild-card entry into the Open but has proved she belongs, with both a victory over Reka-Luca Jani of Hungary in the first round and Thursday's upset of Peer.
"I definitely felt I was ready for this," said Stephens, whose effervescence contrasts starkly with the more jaded attitude of some of her older counterparts in the locker room. "I knew what I could do. I knew if I stayed positive and focused, I would be able to come out with some good stuff in the end, which I did, so I was proud of that."
But never mind tennis. What did that win really mean to Stephens?
"Now I know for sure when I get home after the season's over, I'm getting a car," she said. "That's the only thing I'm really looking forward to."
There is still the little matter of No. 16 seed Ana Ivanovic, a former No. 1 player who awaits Stephens in the third round on Saturday.
McHale, 19, has had a strong run in recent weeks as well, defeating current world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki at Cincinnati and knocking off eighth-seeded Marion Bartoli in the second round here. McHale will face No. 25 seed Maria Kirilenko Friday in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Falconi, 21, topped No. 14 seed Dominika Cibulkova to reach the third round and will take on No. 22 Sabine Lisicki on Friday as well.
Asked before the tournament about the up-and-coming young American, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert said that although solid talent is emerging, no dramatic breakthrough was imminent. "We're years away from making an impact," Evert said. "Right now, at this point, I don't see anything happening this year. But I think there's some really exciting and good, solid tennis players out there in the American field."
Evert might be right. The young Americans are still a long way from being real contenders to win a Slam.
"Look, they're in the third round, that's great," McEnroe said. "But it's just the third round. Cliff [Drysdale, of South Africa] said to me the other day, 'You must be very excited about this.' Yeah, I'm very excited, but I'll be really excited when we start to get them into the second week of the majors. So whether we're ready for that, I'm not sure.
"That's what Chrissie's talking about. The next step to her is the chance to win majors. I'm not sure we're there yet."
But they are getting closer. Finally.