American prospects leave mark on chaotic U.S. Open women's draw

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No such luck; the gallant Francesca took a Labor Day loss at the hands of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and it's difficult to imagine any compelling obstacles in Serena Williams' path to the title. Not to diminish the talent of the surviving players in any way, but where's the intrigue? Where's the excitement inside television headquarters? Where's the story?

Chances are it has already been written. It happened last week, in the form of a mini-revolution in American women's tennis.

We haven't reached the summit, not by any means. Even the most fervent optimists, the likes of Patrick McEnroe and Chris Evert, aren't forecasting any major titles for Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi or Madison Keys, who had such a tremendous collective impact at Flushing Meadows (all but Keys reached the third round, along with Serena and Vania King, marking the Americans' best showing at the Open since 2004).

But for heaven's sake, at this time two weeks ago, they weren't even in the conversation. It was all about Serena, and let's hope Bethanie Mattek-Sands' shoulder gets better, and beware a stage too large for the immature.

Instead, those kids took to the stage like rock stars, then leaped into a mosh pit of admirers. For the youth of American tennis, we've reached the end of desperation, of blind luck, of players looking for wild-card entries into relevance. Put any of them in a big tournament, and there's an upset waiting to happen. McHale, Stephens and Keys have been labeled with top-30 potential. And that's a huge upgrade from the depths of despair -- a pretty good way to describe the Americans' plight just last year.

What a terrific development for McEnroe, the man in charge of USTA development, and he surely must be chuckling at this latest episode in a brotherly rivalry. A year ago, John McEnroe established his own academy to rejuvenate the sport in New York and perhaps make a few waves in American tennis. He preached a more balanced approach in which tennis is only part of a kid's life, saying, "People who think that in order to succeed you have to give up everything at the age of 10 and focus exclusively on tennis are crazy."

Considering that so many great players were raised to defy convention -- Evert, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters, among others -- don't discount John McEnroe's endeavor. But there's finally something to show for all of Patrick's hard work, and to his credit, he takes a measured approach.

"We kind of felt that this was going to come," he told "I'm not going to say I knew it would happen at the U.S. Open, but I knew we had a really good group coming along. They got to the third round, but it's just the third round. I'll be really excited when we start to get them into the second week of the majors. Whether we're ready for that right now, I'm not sure."

Evert, who contributed incisive commentary to the ESPN coverage, said before the tournament that "we're years away from making a major impact." But she also said, "I think there are some really exciting and good, solid tennis players out there." In the face of hardened skepticism (you could almost hear people muttering, "Yeah, right"), she was absolutely correct.

A closer look at the young Americans:

Christina McHale: Her resolve under scrutiny after a disastrous French Open (losing to Sara Errani after leading 5-0 in the third), McHale came back to beat Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova over the summer, then knocked off Marion Bartoli in a thrilling U.S. Open second-rounder on the Grandstand. So there's no longer any mystery to the 19-year-old New Jersey girl, only the promise of her slimmed-down frame, dynamic forehand and a serve that reached 110 mph against Bartoli.

It was interesting to learn that McHale speaks fluent Spanish (she has Cuban heritage on her mother's side), and that the National Tennis Center amounts to her home court, the site of many practice sessions under Patrick McEnroe's tutelage. And it's downright refreshing to watch a player who strikes the ball in silence and doesn't break into a demure fist pump when her opponent shanks a forehand 10 feet wide.

"She had an answer to everything," Bartoli said after the match. "She was just too good." Without question, after matching up so well against Bartoli's power, McHale figured to have an excellent chance to take down Maria Kirilenko, whose groundstrokes aren't quite as forceful. But nerves entered the picture, with McHale freely admitting that she was "too passive" in her 6-2, 6-3 loss, and she was near tears in trying to explain it.

Watch out for McHale at next year's Open. She'll feel even more at home, with a number of lessons learned.

Irina Falconi: Nobody summed up the spirit of this youth movement -- or what it means to be raised as an immigrant in this country -- more than the 21-year-old Falconi. Her parents moved from Ecuador to New York when Irina was 3 years old, and she grew up in Washington Heights, developing her game on public courts and fostering what she calls "definitely a New York attitude." She was absolutely thrilled to have realized her dream, winning a couple of matches at the mighty U.S. Open, and it was inspiring to watch her waving an American flag so proudly after her second-round victory over Dominika Cibulkova (on Ashe Stadium, no less, after a last-minute scheduling switch).

Falconi is just 5-foot-4, and there's a fair chance her game has peaked, but don't count her out entirely. She's a solid competitor with a ton of desire. "I've heard so much media talking about American tennis," she said in the interview room. "It's coming, it's coming. No need to wait any longer."

Remember this, though: By the second set of the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka match, we were witnessing tennis on an entirely different level. The pace, the intensity, the consequence -- everything about that final half-hour was spectacular. Let's just say that America's "wait" is getting shorter.

Sloane Stephens: How often have you read glowing reports about an American tennis prospect, only to become disenchanted upon a first-hand look? Whatever it might be -- a face full of doubt, half-baked athleticism, ordinary groundstrokes -- it can create an immediate sense of dread. That is hardly the case with Stephens, the 18-year-old from Los Angeles who made some noise earlier this year with victories over Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges. She has what baseball scouts call "the good face," a worthy complement to her natural grace and power. She really looks the part, and her story only gains credence upon closer inspection.

On the court, she strikes huge forehands with an easy, smooth-flowing motion and has the gift of being able to serve her way out of trouble (119 mph on one point against Shahar Peer in the second round). Her interviews revealed a very grounded young lady who loves to spend time with her grandparents and harbors such great respect for the U.S. Open, she didn't want to play on Ashe Stadium until she'd earned the right (the third round, as it turned out). It was commonly known that her mother was an All-America swimmer and that her late father, John Stephens, played in the NFL. Thanks to Greg Couch's piece on, we discovered more.

It turns out that John wasn't around much during Sloane's upbringing; she barely knew him. When the former New England Patriots running back learned in 2006 that he had contracted a degenerative bone disease, he set out to make amends with his daughter and established a long-distance relationship. But Sloane's mother made sure he kept that distance, and it was only after he died in a one-car accident in 2009 -- just days before the U.S. Open -- that Sloane learned her father had twice been arrested for rape.

At the age of 16, with all that madness swirling about, Sloane played her first U.S. Open, adjusting her schedule so she could attend her father's funeral. She had grown to love the man, unconditionally, and "I still think about that," she said recently. "I don't even know how I played. I woke up the next morning [after the funeral] and played the second or third match on. It was crazy."

So it's more than a story of endearing personality and a game that looks built to last. It's a story of inner strength, and the ability to overcome. It was probably a bit early for Stephens to get an Ashe assignment, and she was overmatched 6-3, 6-4 by Ana Ivanovic in the third round. But this definitely a player worth following.

Madison Keys: Admittedly, there's a bit of bias involved when Evert talks about Keys. The 16-year-old is from Illinois, but she moved with her family to train for several years at the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida. Still, said Evert before the tournament, "I would put Madison against anybody as far as power and reach, and she's got the tenacity. When I look at her, I think she is the future of American tennis."

Lanky and flexible, like McHale, Keys unleashed some impressive groundstrokes and a first serve that topped out at 117 mph. (Quick side note: McHale, Stephens and Keys all have fluid, athletic service motions, advanced by a million miles over Maria Sharapova's, and they have far better ideas how to employ that weapon.)

Keys was at her very best in the early stages of her second-round match against Lucie Safarova, utterly calm and racing to a 5-0 lead. Perhaps sensing the moment for the first time, she tightened up as the match went on, possibly forcing her into some major -- and costly -- risks.

Serving at 5-6, 30-30 of the second set, Keys chose that moment to try her first drop shot of the match, a backhand that fell sadly into the net. She tried the same shot a bit later, and it ended both the game and the second set of a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 loss. She took some criticism from Navratilova, among others, but you wonder: What if those shots had gone in? Would she be praised for uncommon bravery?

"What she hasn't developed is the mental side of the game," Evert said. "But I think there's a silver lining: Maybe it was too early in her career to have this big of a win."

The obvious reference there was to Melanie Oudin, Beatrice Capra and every other young player who enjoyed too much success, too soon, at big tournaments. There will be plenty of time for McHale's generation to build on experience, gradually, and arrive at the proper time.

Give some credit, meanwhile, to Madison's father for a very candid and appropriate observation. Rick Keys and his wife both are lawyers, enabling them to give Madison the Evert Academy education and a number of other benefits. "The bottom line is that this would not have happened if we couldn't afford it," Rick told reporters. "You always hear people talk about how we're not getting the athletes into the sport, but no one ever steps up and says that money has a hell of a lot to do with it."

There was more to the Open story. King, playing the main draw for the sixth time, got to the third round with an impressive 6-2, 6-0 win over Jarmila Gajdosova, and as this is written, King and Yaroslava Shvedova are moving steadily toward their second consecutive U.S. Open doubles title. Coco Vandeweghe, yet another American prospect with a booming forehand and serve, won a main-draw Grand Slam match for the first time in her career.

Most of it took place well below the tournament's mainstream, where very strange things were happening. No fewer than six of the Tour's big names -- Bartoli, Sharapova, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Daniela Hantuchova and Agniesza Radwanska -- took first-week losses that were thoroughly unexpected.

"This generation is so fragile," wrote Matt Cronin, in disgust, on his Twitter account. He could have said "vulnerable," as well. On a Tour defined by confusion and unpredictability, a bunch of young Americans just barged through the door.