“Having Venus and Serena at the top is a huge value,” says Martin Blackman, the head of the USTA Player Development program. “They set the highest standard, and I think you can see that in the development of a player like Madison Keys.”

What Blackman meant was that, when it comes to the generation of U.S. players that will (hopefully, someday) follow the Williams sisters, making the Top 20—or even the Top 10—isn’t going to cut it. Keys knows that, too, of course; she can feel the weight of U.S. tennis history, and the expectations it creates, with every powerful swing of her racquet. But so far that history has been more of an inspiration than a burden to her. This summer Keys became the first U.S. woman since Serena in 1999 to debut in the Top 10. And while it can be hard to remember, considering how long we’ve been talking about her, she's still just 21.

Teachable Moment

Teachable Moment

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As most tennis fans know, Keys first showed an interest in tennis as a 4-year-old, while watching Venus play at Wimbledon on TV—it was Venus’ dress, rather than her strokes, that caught young Madison’s eye. On Thursday night in Montreal, Keys had a chance to see her sartorial inspiration across the net from her for the fourth time. While Keys had made great strides over the last two seasons, she still hadn’t passed Venus by. Even at 36, Williams came into the match ranked six spots higher (No. 6 to Keys’ No. 12), and with a 2-1 record in their head to head.

This week, Keys herself admitted that she still has plenty to learn from the senior member of her Olympic team.

Teachable Moment

Teachable Moment

“We both obviously rely on our serves a lot,” Keys said when asked to compare her game with Venus’. “But I definitely think there’s some big differences between us as well. Like I think she moves forward really, really well. That’s something I’m working on more in my game. But I also think her backhand is more of a solid shot, whereas I think mine is my forehand.”

Unfortunately for Venus, she couldn’t rely on her serve in this match, and she wasn’t moving forward all that well, either. While she said before the match that she didn’t want to reveal “what’s going down,” she admitted that she “had some issues” that were affecting her physically. That turned out to be an understatement. Venus spent the match arming her serve in at around 70 m.p.h.; a few second serves looked like they were traveling under the 50-m.p.h. mark. And once the point started, she stayed glued behind the baseline, unable to mount much of an attack. Keys won the first set 6-1 in 20 minutes, and when she had break points to go up 4-1 in the second, it looked like the best course of action for Venus would be to call it a night and start getting ready for Rio.

We should have known that Venus wouldn’t go out like that. This summer—at the French Open, Wimbledon and in Stanford—she has been finding ways to hang around, find her range and claw her way back from early deficits. She must have known that if she kept making Keys play, this hit-and-miss slugger would start to miss. That’s what’s happened; in the middle of the second set, Keys’ return and her backhand went missing. Suddenly we were in a tiebreaker, Venus was spinning in a 40-something-m.p.h second serve, Keys was belting it 10 feet long and we were heading for a third set.

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Teachable Moment

Teachable Moment

In making this comeback, Venus had another lesson for her young countrywoman: Make do with what you have. Venus was hindered, so she abandoned her usual attacking game, planted herself deep in the court and did what she could to throw Keys off her rhythm. Venus looped forehands high, sliced backhands low and moved her side to side—it was amazing how well she could control the rallies from back there, without ever doing anything special with the ball.

Eventually Keys got it back together and won, 6-1, 6-7 (2), 6-3, but she needed every big serve she could come up with to finish Venus off; without that weapon, this match might have come down to a final-set tiebreaker. But while Keys was the better player, Venus was the better competitor; while Keys rode an emotional roller coaster, Venus remained her stoical self throughout. She had done what she could with what she had, and made the score closer than anyone (other than her) could have expected. When she lost, she shook Keys’ hand and said, “Nice match.”

It’s taken a long time for the Williams sisters to find a U.S. successor, but Keys should be happy that they stuck around long enough to show her a thing or two about competing. Even in defeat, they still set the highest standard.