Lauren Davis, Kayla Day and the burgeoning U.S. women’s brigade

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Lauren Davis beat Julia Goerges on Monday with deep returns, lethal forehands and superior consistency. (AP)

Lauren Davis is playing the tennis of her life. The 23-year-old Ohio native is 16-3 in 2017 and has already jumped 24 spots, to No. 38, since the beginning of the year. She won the title in Auckland, came out of qualifying to make the quarters in Doha and won three straight three-set matches to get to the quarters again in Dubai. On Monday, Davis kept her hot streak going on a very hot day in Indian Wells, making routine work of former Top 20 player Julia Goerges, 6-1, 6-3.

What, you ask, is the secret to Davis’ sudden success? Judging by the conversation she had with her coach, Mark Schanerman, during his on-court visit at the end of the first set, the answer is ... portfolio diversification?

“I heard the dollar is going down a little bit,” Schanerman told Davis, “but it’s still stronger compared to the euro. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of emerging markets, a lot of positives going.”

Davis smiled and nodded along, until Schanerman finally stood up, sighed, and told her as he ambled away, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a rock star.”

That might not be the most detailed advice a coach has ever given a player, but you should always emphasize the positive, right? Davis walked back on court smiling, and did exactly what Schanerman told her: She kept doing what she was doing—i.e., winning.

Still, Davis makes an unlikely rock star. She’s listed at 5’2”, though that seems on the high side, and she’s hardly a diva on court. Her mother, Traci, is a nurse, and her father, William, is a cardiologist who ghostwrote Novak Djokovic’s 2014 fitness book, “Serve to Win.” Lauren is a born-again Christian who took some heat on Twitter three years ago when she thanked God after upsetting Victoria Azarenka at Indian Wells.

Davis beat Goerges on Monday with deep returns, lethal forehands and superior consistency; all are essential for a woman whose serve is never going to be a weapon, and who has spent her career playing uphill against much taller players. Asked to explain her 2017 form, though, Davis inevitably talks about how happy she is on the court these says.

“I’m super excited about the way I’m playing,” Davis told the Tennis Channel on Monday, “and just how much I’m enjoying myself. I’m taking it match by match and just trying to focus on the process.”

On its own, Davis’ surge at 23 is a surprise; in six years on tour, she’s never made it past the third round at a major, or finished a season in the Top 60. But in the context of the U.S. women’s game right now, it makes perfect sense. Every month, it seems, a different player makes a run. Over the last year, we’ve seen them from Davis, Christina McHale, Nicole Gibbs, Shelby Rogers, Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske, Jennifer Brady, CiCi Bellis, Coco Vandeweghe—and, of course, the country’s three members of the Top 15, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Madison Keys, who returned to the tour this week for the first time since October. There are currently 19 U.S. women in the Top 100. (By my calculations, Russia is a distant second with eight.)

This weekend those women were joined, in galvanizing fashion, by a new face, 17-year-old Kayla Day. The Santa Barbara sparkplug leaped all the way into the third round of the main draw, and nearly knocked off Garbiñe Muguruza when she got there. Day left the court in tears after double-faulting on match point, but admitted later that there was nothing about her performance to be bummed about. A spirited lefty who loves to move the ball side to side with her topspin forehand, Day reminded more than a few people of Rafael Nadal in her attitude and game style. She relies on thoughtful point construction rather than hair-trigger winners, a fact that should serve her well in the years ahead.

“It’s really great to see,” Davis said of the WTA’s ever-deepening U.S. bench. “We challenge each other and encourage each other and train with each other. It’s like a domino effect.”

Domino effect, deep bench or merry-go-round? When one player gets on, another tends to get off. While Davis has come to life in February, January’s U.S. breakthrough, Vandeweghe, has lost two straight first-round matches. Louisa Chirico, after cracking the Top 60 and reaching the semis in Madrid last spring, is 0-5 to start 2017. Rogers, after her brilliant run to the quarterfinals at the French Open last season, has yet to reach that round again in any event. In the last 15 years, Keys is the only U.S. woman to follow the Williams sisters into the Top 10.

We’ll see whether this year’s fast risers—Bellis, Davis, Brady and Day—can keep their runs going, and whether Vandeweghe can restart hers. But even if they don’t, it’s hard to say that the U.S. is struggling on the women’s side. There are lots of players for the nation’s tennis fans to watch in the opening weeks of tournaments, and usually at least one—i.e., Serena—still left at the end. There’s certainly no lack of variety, in personality and playing style, among this group of 19.

U.S. fans will get to see some more of Davis in Indian Wells; she’ll play Kristina Mladenovic in the fourth round on Wednesday. We’ll be waiting to see how she does—or at least to pick up a few stock tips from her coach along the way.




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