Young U.S. women closing the gap
LONDON -- They are all at once the next great American hopes in women's tennis, yet as seemingly distant to No. 1 Serena Williams as Bing is to Google.
Sloane Stephens. Madison Keys. Alison Riske. All three played third-round matches Saturday at Wimbledon. Only Stephens survived. And yet, with each Grand Slam tournament, there is a narrowing of the gap, a real feeling that it isn't just a convenient headline but significant progress being made.
"I think it's a big jump," said Keys, 18, who lost in a hard-fought battle to 2012 Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. "I know for a long time there weren't many U.S. girls in the top 100, and now there are. I think there are maybe five in the top 50 now. I think we're all just doing really well, and I hope we can all keep it up."
The bar is exceedingly high with Williams winning her 600th career match under the lights on Centre Court Saturday night, with a breezy 6-2, 6-0 victory over Kimiko Date-Krumm in 61 minutes.
Stephens, at 20 and seeded 17th here, is technically the closest to Williams, having reached the fourth round of the French Open and even defeating Williams -- albeit suffering from a balky ankle and back spasms -- in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January.
The No. 2 American in the world behind Williams, Stephens is the third-highest seed remaining in her half of the draw, the possibility existing -- particularly after the second-round eliminations of No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Maria Sharapova -- that she could face Williams in what would be Stephens' first Grand Slam final.
"That's a long ways off," Stephens cautioned. "Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is going to have a projection. It means nothing until the match is actually going to happen or we get that far in the tournament."
You can't blame Stephens for her reticence. Her 7-6(3), 0-6, 6-4 victory Saturday over qualifier Petra Cetkovska was hardly her best work. The match was suspended by darkness Friday after the second set, and Stephens admitted she had lost her focus.
"It was a little tough because, at the end of the first set, I couldn't see anything," Stephens said. "I was like, OK, this is going to be interesting."
Stephens fell behind 2-0 in the third set when the match resumed before three double faults by Cetkovska allowed her to take the lead at 4-3. Stephens then held off a break point in the next game and held serve to advance to her first career round of 16 at Wimbledon, where she will play 65th-ranked Monica Puig.
With Riske losing 6-2, 6-3 to Kaia Kanepi, the most compelling match among the Americans was no contest. Keys, who has been drawing raves from opponents and retired greats alike -- with Chrissie Evert predicting a future No. 1 ranking -- fought off four match points in the second-to-last game before Radwanska prevailed in a gripping 2 hours, 22 minutes.
Keys, with power that evokes comparisons to Williams, had 15 aces in her first main-draw appearance here and 67 winners, versus 23 for Radwanska.
Told that her opponent said she was impressed with her serving, which reached a top speed of 119 mph, Keys grinned.
"I was kind of impressed with my serving," she said.
"She was really playing great tennis," Radwanska said. "Especially she was serving unbelievable. Even when I had some break points ... I couldn't do anything. I'm very happy to be a little better at the end of the third set. ...
"A couple months ago, a journalist asked me who is one of the youngest players coming up and [having] good results, and I picked her. I think she's a very good up-and-coming player. She can really do well. If she's going to work and play like this, we're going to see her much [more] often."
But can Keys actually imagine herself one day lifting the trophy on Centre Court?
"Yeah, I can," Keys said. "It would be nice."