Far be it from me to suggest that Serena Williams isn’t going to end up No. 1 in the world at the end of 2013, although the trick I’d really like to see her pull off is completing a calendar-year Grand Slam while finishing No. 4, behind Vika, Maria, and Caro.
Now that would be impressive.
But it still leaves open the question of who among the young American women is most likely to emerge as Serena’s successor. Serena is 31 years old and has experienced more than a fair share of injuries and other tribulations. Sometime soon, somebody is going to have to take her place, just like the American men have to find a leader now that Andy Roddick is gone.
The ATP Top 100 includes six active Americans, while the women have 10. But if you take No. 3 Serena out of the picture, the highest-ranked is No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko.
Forget about the prospect of a new American Grand Slam champ for now. The real question about is this: How many Top 10-quality women does the nation have? Realistically, this is the area in which you can hope for the most movement by American women in the coming year.
The USA also has 13 women in the second 100 of the WTA, but one whom deserves special mention in ranked No. 498, Taylor Townsend. She has a junior Grand Slam singles title on her resume (along with three in doubles) and is the first American woman to hold the year-end No. 1 junior ranking since Gretchen Rush in 1982.
Townsend is just 16 and turning pro in January, but there’s a caveat worth nothing. Diplomatically described as “sturdy,” or “Serena-like,” Townsend has been the subject of considerable controversy surrounding her weight and/or state of fitness (note that this wasn’t an issue for the young Serena, which is worth thinking about for those most disposed to a charitable view of Townsend’s heft). I guess we’ll see how well Townsend holds up to the pro grind soon enough.
Moving on to the best among the Top 100:
Varvara Lepchenko (No. 21, age 26): She made great strides last year, starting from a ranking of No. 127. An immigrant from Uzbekistan and now a U.S. citizen, she’s a 5’11” lefty with a power baseline game. The thing she most needs to cut her ranking in half — or better — is greater consistency.
While Lepchenko has had some great wins, she’s also suffered some puzzling losses. But that’s not particularly worrisome when you look at how far she’s come, and the adjustments she’s had to make en route to being a seed-quality Grand Slam player. Lepchenko works with the USTA, and is considered a model protégé. You have to love her attitude and desire.
Venus Williams (No. 24, age 32): It’s well-documented by now that if 40 can’t exactly be called the “new 30,” 35 just might qualify for that distinction. And if you think another Venus resurgence is out of the question, keep in mind that in her last two tournaments of 2012, she lost a squeaker to then-No. 6 Angelique Kerber in the second round of the U.S. Open (6-2, 5-7, 7-5), and won Luxembourg. Venus took out top seed Roberta Vinci there, as well as Mona Barthel. Still, she’s the elder stateswoman among the Americans and can’t do much for the future.
Christina McHale (No. 33, age 20): Through the Olympic games, McHale lost to an unseeded player on just four occasions, and while her results tailed off during the second half of 2012, she did hit a career-high No. 24 before backsliding.
Sloane Stephens (No. 38, age 19): If McHale is hearing footsteps, they probably come from the feet of Stephens, who’s a year younger and ranked just five rungs below McHale. In 2011, Stephens was the youngest player in the Top 100 (at age 18). She’s coming on, and wasting no time.
Stephens has a languid manner and style; at times it looks as if she’s daring her opponent to try to make here run. But she’s powerful and crafty, and best of all, she has that rare star quality — the ability to shine at the most important times.
Stephens has lost just once in the first round of a Grand Slam event (her first, the 2011 French Open) and last year she lost at a major before the third round just once (Australia, second round). She made the fourth round at the French Open, but played a match against No. 6 seed Sam Stosur (a former Roland Garros finalist), that reminded us of just how young she still is, losing in straights.
The other American women in the Top 100 are No. 69 Vania King (a superb doubles player), No. 70 Jamie Hampton (her creative, athletic game is a joy to watch), No. 84 Melanie Oudin, No. 92 Lauren Davis, and No. 97 Coco Vandeweghe, whose sheer size (6’1”) and power continue to hold promise — as demonstrated by her run in Stanford that left her runner-up to Serena. Vandeweghe’s inability to build on that momentum was a little disappointing, but she was in unfamiliar territory at the time; having just turned 21, she still has time to mature.
Right now, though, the woman most likely to prepare us for the end of the Williams era with a few quality wins appears to be Lepchenko, who’s entering into the heart of her career in good shape. The youngsters McHale and Stephens, whose results may serve as excellent motivators for each other, will continue to improve. In the long run, Stephens may prove to be the best of all the American women not named Williams, and the one most likely to assume the mantle when Serena is ready to surrender it. Don’t waste your time waiting, girls
Rafa Nadal made short work of his great rival Roger Federer to win the Italian Open, while Serena Williams took down Victoria Azarenka in the women's final.
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