USTA coach Debbie Graham: "a little changing of the guard" coming

USTA coach Debbie Graham: "a little changing of the guard" coming

The rising group of American women could be set to go even higher as the tour returns to normal.

The rising group of American women could be set to go even higher as the tour returns to normal, according to former WTA player and USTA development coach Debbie Graham, who has tracked them since juniors.

Veteran leadership is provided by Serena and Venus Williams and teenagers like Coco Gauff and Amanda Anisimova have started breaking through. In between, though, is a large group that includes Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady, Jessica Pegula, Shelby Rogers, Madison Keys, Danielle Collins, and Sloane Stephens, among them.

Graham, who reached a career-high of No. 28 in the rankings in 1992—not No. 35 as WTA Tour records show—says No. 4 Kenin, 22, has improved the most as a player.

“I watched her grow up as a junior. The girl works incredibly hard," Graham told "I’m really impressed with Kenin because she was always a good player [but] she wasn't always the best player coming up.

"When I first saw her I don't know that I would have been like, 'Oh, she's going to be a top player,' but she has proved that if you really want it and you work hard and you put those hours in... You don't get that combination for so many players.

"She puts extra hours, she's been doing that with her dad, they do crazy hours. She wasn't with the USTA for a long time, they did all their stuff on their own." 

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Kenin won the 2020 Australian Open, beating world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals and then rallying past two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza. She also reached the final of the French Open last October. Her success against top names reflects her mental toughness.

"She has that attitude against everybody. She thinks she can beat everybody, and that's part of a great player... she's not afraid, she just goes for it," Graham said. 

At this season's Australian Open, it was 26-year-old Brady who reached the final for the first time, following an appearance in the semifinals of the US Open. She has also improved a lot and is now in the Top 15 on tour.

"She's super-athletic, another really hard worker, guts on court," Graham said. "She was always the final one off the court, first one on the court. She can do lots of things—move forward, scrappy, defensive, she can be offensive too."

But several players have come up only to drop back down, so staying at this level can be tough.  

"There's a lot of them. But we need some consistency. Some of these younger players are really feisty, like Kenin and Brady," said Graham. "There's so much pressure, and the pressure they put on themselves."

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Stephens and Keys played each other in the final of the 2017 US Open, but the 26-year-old Keys has dropped to No. 23 in the rankings. Stephens, 28, won the final, is now ranked No. 51.

"Madison's injured a lot. She was on my teams when I was with the USTA when she was younger," Graham said.  "I always keep watching her. She has the whole package. She has the build. And it really goes to show, it's hard mentally. If your confidence isn't very high, it's tough to get to the finish line sometimes.”

Stephens has had some other big runs like reaching the French Open final in 2018, but has hardly had any wins recently. "Sloane had a rough time. That's the hard part about the sport—the mental side. She's athletic, plays a great game, but these intangibles," Graham said. "That's why there's so few great players, because you've got to have all of those things."

But they could find more motivation again as crowds come back, suggested Graham. 

"It'll be really interesting what happens in the next year, when everything starts to open up. That's kind of the fun of being a pro, the fans, the energy of being there. It's tough [right now], you've got to motivate yourself," she said. "There's going to be a little changing of the guard."

While Kenin is not playing this week's Madrid Open, the tournament field contains Brady, Keys and Stephens.