By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
A year ago, Jamie Hampton was competing in her first French Open, after a spring season in which she won just one match on clay; Madison Keys was ranked outside the Top 200, playing mostly USTA Pro Circuit events and trying to qualify for tour-level tournaments; and Mallory Burdette was competing in the NCAA Division I Championships for Stanford University, had not yet played in a professional tournament that year and had no WTA rankings points.
A year later they’ve made names for themselves – and they’re not alone. After the 2013 French Open, 11 American women were ranked in the Top 100, the most of any country, and the U.S. is surging thanks to an all-around great performance in Paris.
Outside French Open champion Serena Williams winning her 16th major title, Hampton made the most noise in Paris. The late-blooming 23-year-old defeated two seeded players, including former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, to become one of four American women to advance to the round of 16; she joined Serena, 20-year-old Sloane Stephens and veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
It was the first time four American women had reached the fourth round at a Slam since the 2004 US Open, serving notice to the world that besides having the No. 1 player in Serena and another Hall of Famer in seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, there’s much talent among the U.S. women.
"It is harbinger of things to come," said Patrick McEnroe, general manager of USTA Player Development. "We have known we had a lot of numbers on the women’s side and it was just a case of being patient and taking our time. Development takes a little bit longer now. We knew this was coming. It has been awesome, great to see the girls pushing each other and starting to have results. We’ve always said we want to make [the] best tennis players, not necessarily better clay court players. For us to have some good results on clay, it shows these players can be factors on any surface."
Keys, just 18, reached a career-high of No. 53 in the world post-French Open, jumping nearly 200 spots in the rankings from last year. Her power game, with a dominant serve and huge ground strokes, helped her in Sydney and the Australian Open this year, where she reached the third round. She has followed those results with a strong spring that included a second-round appearance at her first career French Open.
Burdette headed to professional tennis after college last year and reached the third round of the 2012 US Open in her first career Grand Slam singles main draw. From essentially starting from scratch rankings-wise, Burdette, 22, is now ranked a career-high No. 69, including a second-round appearance in Paris.
The best news for U.S. tennis fans is that Hampton, Keys and Burdette have plenty of company at the top of the women’s game. Serena currently leads the way at No. 1, with Stephens at No. 17, then No. 27 Varvara Lepchenko (who reached the third round in Paris), No. 34 Venus, No. 41 Hampton, Keys, No. 58 Mattek-Sands, No. 63 Christina McHale, Burdette, and No. 88 Lauren Davis.
In all, 15 American women were in the French Open main draw, also the most of any country.
"I think the quality over the past year has jumped tremendously with the female U.S. players," Serena said at the French Open, alluding to her first-round loss a year ago. "I think last year here (in Paris), outside of me, all the U.S. girls did really, really well, and I think we started to see then just so many players just popping up left and right. Fifteen in the main draw? That's pretty awesome. So it is a lot of players, but they're all really young. So there is still an opportunity to grow."
There has been no secret formula or shortcuts to improvement for the U.S. women. The results come from hard work, good decisions, fitness and coaching, and many of these women have come a long way, some in a short period of time.
Healthy competition has also played a role. Many of them have or currently train together with USTA Player Development, either in Boca Raton, Fla.; Flushing Meadows, N.Y.; or Carson, Calif. Hampton, Keys, Shelby Rogers – who also scored her first career Grand Slam win at the French Open – and 2012 year-end No. 1 junior and now pro prospect Taylor Townsend all train alongside each other in Boca. Burdette, who has a private coach, Nick Saviano, practices with them in Boca on occasion and works with the USTA strength and conditioning coaches. Lepchenko, Oudin and junior Louisa Chirico, who reached the girls’ semifinals in Paris in her first career French Open, all train in Flushing Meadows. Stephens currently trains with USTA coaches in Carson, Calif.
McEnroe thinks having so many of the women training together has helped their progress and noted that their success this spring has been no surprise to him.
"Having all the girls together has really made a big difference," he said. "When I first took the job (as general manager of Player Development) five years ago, I didn’t see any of our best young women there, they were all scattered around the country. Getting all of them to come together, to believe in our program and in what we’re doing, I think has been beneficial to them and their progress. They train together, then one goes off and has a good week or two on the tour and the other one beats her in practice the next week, and it’s like, ‘Wait a second. When will it be my turn?’"
Hampton made the switch to training with the USTA after the 2011 season. From Auburn, Ala., she had crossed state lines and time zones each day for years to train in Marietta, Ga. A wrist injury had held her back from reaching her full potential from ages 15 to 18, when most juniors establish themselves, before she had surgery that allowed her to hit her signature shot, her backhand, with full authority.
The USTA coaches worked on her fitness, especially helping her to deal with persistent back injuries, and her shot selection. She saw success quickly, and this year at the Australian Open, she reached the third round and pushed eventual champion Victoria Azarenka to three sets. During the clay season, she reached her first career WTA semifinal in Brussels, Belgium, before her run in Paris, showing how far she’s come and developed her game for clay.
"She kept putting the work in, improving her game and her fitness has gotten a lot better," McEnroe said. "We always knew she had very good upside. She has a lot of ability and talent; it was just managing her shots and her game and that becomes even more of an emphasis on clay, where you have to have more patience, you have to hit the right shots more often and work the points a little more. She has come a long way. I think when she lost that match to Azarenka in Australia, she realized she could play with the best in the world."
Hampton agreed with McEnroe that training alongside her peers – and ultimately competitors – has been great for her progress to go along with the great coaching and strength and conditioning training.
"Our days are pretty long in Boca," she said. "We go and have some individual time and then practice with each other every day. We've got practice sets. We see each other working hard. To be honest, when I look over and I see them working hard I'm like, ‘OK, you got to step it up. You got to work harder.’ They're my friends but they're my competitors as well. I want to outwork them."
Burdette echoed Hampton’s sentiments that having so many fellow players do well is beneficial for them all.
"It's definitely a confidence booster and great to have so many other great Americans out there," she said. "The fact that I'm getting to play them in these tournaments means they're doing well, too, so that's a really good thing. I think we're all pushing each other. That's exactly what we need for American tennis."
Stephens, 20, attracted much attention early this year, when she upset Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to advance to her first career Grand Slam semifinal. The win shocked many in the tennis world who thought Serena unbeatable (as she proved to be in Paris) and catapulted Stephens into the Top 20. She then matched her best showing in Paris by reaching the fourth round for a second straight year.
Mary Joe Fernandez has worked with many of these young players as U.S. Fed Cup Captain and has observed all of them in her role as a broadcaster. Fernandez has watched some of the girls develop from practice partners to full-fledged members of her team, including Hampton, Stephens, Christina McHale and Oudin and seen veterans like Mattek-Sands and Lepchenko continue to surge.
“I started with Fed Cup five years ago and to be able to help them a little and seem them develop, and see how they are pushing each other, is amazing,” Fernandez said. “We are going to have a really solid core group of young women, and they keep making the next step at tournaments. Seeing Jamie’s success, Varvara’s, Sloane’s, seeing Bethanie go through so many injuries and come back, through all the years is inspiring. And when you get them together it is motivating.
“Sometimes it takes that one player to motivate others,” she added. “Melanie (Oudin) really shot up quickly with her Wimbledon and US Open runs a few years ago and I think she inspired the next group of girls to get in better shape and keep developing.”
Of all the young Americans, Keys, with her big game and young age, may have the highest ceiling, but her success is success a little sooner than even McEnroe thought. He maintains that while she has natural talent and weapons that can’t be taught, it’s still a process for all players from doing well at one tournament or another to winning consistently at the sport’s highest levels – on all surfaces, no less.
"The key is to remember it is a process. It is not going to happen when you snap your fingers," McEnroe said. "Madison has had some great results. I think she is ahead of schedule of where I expected her to be. She is really working hard, her fitness is better; her shot selection is getting better. She has a huge serve, big shots off both wings. It is managing her game, more in the finesse area [that they’re working on], using the slice backhand, coming to net at the right time, and that is going to take time. It is an all-around game that we are looking for."
Whether any or all of the talented bunch make it to the Top 10 or world No. 1 depends on how much effort and passion they are willing to put in.
"There are a lot of sacrifices made along the way," McEnroe said. "As Jose (Higueras, USTA Director of Coaching) says, ‘If it were so easy to make it, everyone would.’ You have to do a lot of things right, even if you have all the ability in the world. It is incumbent upon the player and family supporting them to really make the right decisions and have the passion to do it. There are a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, even for our best players. It is how you handle that and deal with that that partly determines how successful and consistent you will be in your career."
“There is not going to be a ‘next’ Serena or Venus. Champions are unique in their own way,” adds Fernandez. “[Each of these women] are working so hard on and off the court and becoming more professional all-around, but not everyone develops at the same time. Jamie is 23 and it is all starting to come together for her now; Sloane was ready earlier. You have to be patient. You have to put in the work and get the most of what you have, whether that is top 10, top 50. But one thing is for sure—you have to put in all you have to be the best you can be.”