U.S. women perfect in Paris
PARIS -- The excuses are usually at the ready for Americans to draw upon after losses at the French Open. The red clay can be too hard, too fast, too red or too unfamiliar for U.S. players, so it's not hard to explain away a first-round loss.
But what's this? All 10 American women who have played so far -- veterans such as Venus Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Varvara Lepchenko and up-and-comers Christina McHale, Irina Falconi, Melanie Oudin, Lauren Davis, Vania King, Sloane Stephens and Alexa Glatch -- have broken through to the second round at Roland Garros.
Serena Williams and Jamie Hampton are scheduled to play their first-round matches Tuesday, possibly pushing the U.S. win total into near-record territory. If both win, there will be 12 American women through to the second round, the most since 13 in 1991. It's a huge leap for the U.S. -- from 2005 through 2011, the average was only five.
For a similar showing, you have to thumb back through the history books to 2003 and 2004, when the U.S. sent through 11 and nine players, respectively.
"I think it's great we're all playing so well," said McHale, who won her match against Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands on Monday, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. "I think we all are kind of supporting each other and pushing each other."
The U.S. is guaranteed to have at least two women through to the third round.
McHale, 19, will face off against the youngest American, 18-year-old Davis, in the second round. Davis pulled off the biggest win of her career Monday, defeating No. 30 seed Mona Barthel, 6-1, 6-1. And Mattek-Sands, who defeated No. 12 seed Sabine Lisicki 6-4, 6-3, will play Stephens in the second round.
Stephens, 19, shared in the excitement of McHale and her younger American peers doing well at the French. She eagerly greeted McHale in the locker room after their matches, both quite happy with their victories.
"Starting from last year at the U.S. Open when we all did pretty well, we all had some pretty good results, I think that kind of sparked something," Stephens said about the emerging group. "The more media catches on to it, they're like, 'Oh, they're really doing something.'"
Stephens, who has a fun sense of humor, added, "We're not all lazy and don't do anything. I think since last year we've kind of made like a big push and everyone has seen that, so whatever everyone is doing, just keep doing it."
The Williams sisters have carried the mantle of American success for more than a decade, both reaching No. 1 and winning numerous Grand Slams. Now the spotlight is starting to shine a bit brighter on Stephens and McHale, with Glatch and Davis also getting noticed. Oudin burst onto the scene with her run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals, but she has struggled to regain her footing and manage expectations since.
Mattek-Sands, 27, and Lepchenko, 26, fall between the newcomers and the Williams sisters. Both have been journeymen on the WTA Tour, carving out decent livings with a few big wins.
"It's still only one round, we have a lot more to go, but I will take the win," Mattek-Sands said. "That's great, because a couple of years ago, everyone was asking me the opposite question: why American tennis was so bad. I told them, 'I think we have some great young players coming up.' ...
"It really shows that some of the Americans are coming through playing tough, grinding it out here on the clay, and it's awesome, I think."
Having a good opening-round showing at the French Open is a good sign, but it's not fair to expect the younger players to have careers as big and successful as those of the Williams sisters, said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. He wants to see them develop at their own pace, looking at Stephens and McHale hopefully becoming top-10 pros.
American women are scant in the top 30, with Serena, at No. 5, being the highest-ranked. McHale is No. 36, Venus is No. 53, King is No. 57, Lepchenko is No. 63 and Stephens is ranked 70th. Hampton just cracked the top 100 at No. 90. Falconi (No. 112), Davis (162), Mattek-Sands (167) and Glatch (190) would all be thrilled to move up. Oudin, ranked 269th, got into the French Open via a wild card.
"They're all working hard, and they know it's going to take a lot of work for them to make it," said McEnroe, who also is the general manager of the U.S. Tennis Association's player development program. "I don't think that the expectations for what Sloane and Christina will do is to be like the Williams sisters -- I think people are too smart for that. Venus and Serena are two of the greatest of all time. [Stephens and McHale] are both excellent, good young players that play well. Realistically, top 10 is a lofty goal, but it's reachable."
McEnroe sees the new wave of women as a generational movement, something that has historically happened in men's American tennis. He watched as his brother John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors gave way to top-10 players such as Brad Gilbert and Tim Mayotte in the mid-1980s. Then came the next wave, bringing in superstars such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, as well as Michael Chang and even Todd Martin. The next transition was to Andy Roddick in the late '90s.
"You go through changes, lulls, moves, where you go from one generation to the next," McEnroe said. "You realize that you've got to be reasonable about what is possible. We've got a lot of great girls coming up -- Jamie, Sloane, Alexis, Christina, hopefully Melanie gets back on track -- and then behind them you have Grace Min, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend. So I think we have a really good group of players, not only the ones here at the French Open now, but another good wave coming up, too.
"My goal for U.S. tennis is to get the number up, let's get a lot of good players. I think we're getting there."
Stephens agrees with McEnroe. But her expectations remain sky-high for the French Open, as clay is her favorite surface. She was asked where she sees herself in a decade, and scrunched up her face in horror at the thought of being 29.
"Well, in 10 years I better have won [the French Open] one time at least. Otherwise, I will be one unhappy camper," Stephens said. "... Just keep getting better. In 10 years, that's kind of far ahead.
"But maximize potential. That's all you can really hope for."