Red, White, and Bruised

Thursday, May 15, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

Americans had something to cheer for a change at the end of today’s play in Rome. A player from the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals of this WTA Premier 5 event.

The bad news is that the winner was the only American who can be counted on these days to deliver that precious win, which seems to have become as rare as a pitcher of iced tea in the desert.

It sometimes seems that all of American tennis has been boiled down to words: Serena Williams. Granted, they’re magical words, but it wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was such a dominant force in the women’s game that calling it an “international” game didn’t seem entirely accurate—kind of like calling the Major League Baseball finals the “World Series.”

Those days sure are gone, and not just for the American women. Yet as much as the men have struggled, the fate of the women nowadays leaves a more bitter taste, simply because much more has been expected of them. U.S. men’s tennis is a ship manned by a struggling crew without a captain. The women’s game has a clear, inspirational leader (two, if you count Serena’s fading but still exemplary sister, Venus), but lately it has promised much more than it’s been able to deliver.

Less than a month ago, in what might be remembered some day as a historic low for American tennis, 20-year-old Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia beat both Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys—the two bright young lights of the U.S. women’s game—without losing a set in a Fed Cup World Group playoff tie. As a result, the U.S. will have to compete in World Group II for just the second time in the history of the competition.

Things haven’t gotten much better since that unexpected blow.

Only two U.S. women reached the third round last week in Madrid, Serena and Stephens (Stephens lost her match to Li Na; Williams won hers, but withdrew from the quarterfinals with a thigh injury). This week in Rome, three women made it to round three: Serena, Varvara Lepchenko, and Christina McHale. Lepchenko had the misfortune to draw Serena, who beat her handily. McHale was ousted by Zhang Shuai.

This is all the more disturbing because of how well the American women performed last spring. In Madrid, 18-year old Madison Keys upset Li, and went on to win a round at the French Open. A full year of experience later, the only match she’s won on clay this spring was a first-rounder in Charleston.

Last year, Stephens won two rounds in both Rome and Brussels, and reached the fourth round at the French Open. She was coming out of a slump. This year, she appears to be slipping back into one. She lost in the first round at Charleston, then lost in Bogota to crowd favorite—but world No. 129—Mariana Duque-Marino. Then came the debacle in St. Louis, where Garcia won her two singles matches and teamed with Virginie Razzano to clinch the Fed Cup win for France with a doubles victory over Keys and Stephens.

Stephens did win two matches in Madrid a week ago before falling to Li, but she was soundly thrashed by Lepchenko in the second round of Rome, 6-2, 6-2. Given that Stephens is the second-highest ranking American (No. 16) and much hyped as the next someone or other, those results aren’t encouraging.

There’s also Jamie Hampton, who seemed on the verge of cracking the Top 20 by the time last year’s Grand Slam season wound down. She seemed a real threat as, if not a sure-fire Grand Slam champion, then a smooth, elegant shotmaker capable of beating anyone. Unfortunately, Hampton suffered a hip injury early this year and hasn’t played since January. Once as high as No. 24, her ranking is frozen now at No. 35.

The harsh reality is that the young American women have made little if any progress in a year when they could have been expected to grow. In fact, in the current U.S. Top 10, only two women have maintained or improved upon their career-high rankings: Serena Williams (where do you go from No. 1?) and the single, solitary bright spot, Alison Riske.

Riske is ranked No. 44, a career high, and she’s the fifth-highest ranking player from the U.S. The company ahead of Riske is impressive: Hampton, Serena, Stephens, Venus. . . yet even among them, only Serena and Stephens have held their own in the rankings over the past 12 months. Serena remains No. 1, Stephens has improved one spot to No. 16, and Venus is down eight ticks to No. 32.

A year ago, Keys was ranked No. 60; she’s now climbed back up to No. 47, but that’s still well off her career high of No. 36. Lepchenko was No. 31 at this time last year; she’s now No. 49.

Christina McHale? She was No. 54 right before the French Open in 2013; she’s now No. 63.

Twelve months ago, Bethanie Mattek-Sands was No. 66, but like Hampton she’s off the tour with a hip problem. Lauren Davis has improved her ranking by two notches, one spot behind Vania King, who’s ranked No. 64.

These numbers get confusing, and there’s no doubt they could change by the end of the French Open. But there’s another way to look at this, and that’s the view that’s most ominous. With the exception of the Williams sisters, the American WTA pros are a relatively young lot. Yet only one of them is anywhere near her career-high ranking—and that’s Riske.

It’s easy to forget the numbers in the ebb and flow of tournament play, of who’s hot and who’s not, but Stephens has been ranked as high as No. 11, five spots above her current place. Lepchenko has been as high as No. 19, a full 30 spots removed from her present ranking. Christina McHale once was knocking on the door of the Top 20 at No. 24, and she isn’t even in the Top 60.

The conclusion is inescapable. When it came time to step up, the U.S. women have mostly been moving either sideways—or stepping down.

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