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No Pressure, Then?

Bethanie, Melanie, Coco, Sloane, Christina: Can the next generation of US stars topple big name opponents to reach the third round?

Published March 11, 2011 02:54

No Pressure, Then?
Melanie Oudin

INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - After some fine first round wins at the BNP Paribas Open, five of America's best and brightest will showcase their talents against some of the WTA's biggest names over the next couple of days. None of them will head into their matches as favorites, but how they fare will provide insight into the much-scrutinized state of US women's tennis.

Take the incomparable Williams sisters out of the picture and the highest-ranked American is Bethanie Mattek-Sands at No.43. With her 26th birthday looming, Mattek-Sands is a charismatic and gutsy performer enjoying one of her best seasons, and her achievements - including loyal Fed Cup service and winning the Hopman Cup with John Isner - should not be undersold. Plus, there is every sign the best is yet to come.

But inevitably, focus falls on the next generation. More specifically, who has the chops to lift Grand Slam trophies - and fill the void that Venus and Serena will one day leave? Viewed in the context that tennis is now a truly global sport (10 nations are represented in this week's Top 10) and the prevailing trend is for players to peak in their mid twenties or even later, the outlook may well be more encouraging than some have feared.

Eight Americans feature in the Top 100 this week, including the aforementioned leading lights as well as names such as Vania King, already a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion. Cast the net wider, and another nine hover between 100 and 200. With the exception of 33-year-old playing mom Lindsay Lee-Waters, all of the players in this second tier are 21 or younger. And this doesn't even include prospects like of Beatrice Capra, who reached the third round at Flushing Meadows last year and is yet to turn 19.

First up on Friday, 19-year-old Coco Vandeweghe faces defending champion Jelena Jankovic on the main stadium. Junior girls' champion at the US Open in 2008, Vandeweghe's first round defeat of Romania's Edina Gallovits-Hall was just her tenth main draw win at tour level - and yet her athletic all-court style has already notched victims of the caliber of Vera Zvonareva and Aravane Rezai.

A month ago, Vandeweghe might have liked her chances against Jankovic rather more: After failing to win back-to-back matches in six successive tournaments, a revitalized Jankovic has now reached the semis or better in her last three, culminating in a runner-up finish at Monterrey last week. The trick for Vandweghe, trading on a career high ranking of No.92 this week, will be play as though she has nothing to lose when there is so much to gain.

Also on Friday, Mattek-Sands will wave the flag again. She faces a tough opponent, though: Israel's Shahar Peer is knocking on the door of the Top 10, and what's more owns a 4-0 record against the American.

And Melanie Oudin takes on Yanina Wickmayer in a match between two players keen to re-frank their status as future contenders. Oudin has struggled to meet expectations since her quarterfinal run at the 2009 US Open; Wickmayer, who reached the semis there the same year, has slipped from No.12 to No.25 over the past 12 months (Oudin is down at No.84 from a high of No.31). It's winnable for Oudin, who is still only 19, but she'll have to be both aggressive and consistent to withstand the Belgian's onslaught.

But world No.182 Sloane Stephens, who turns 18 on March 20, faces arguably the biggest task: Stephens, who beat fellow US hopeful Jamie Hampton in the first round for just her second WTA main draw victory, bumps straight into world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki. Having breezed past higher-ranked Akgul Amanmuradova, 18-year-old Christina McHale has hardly gotten off lightly either: the world No.112, a semifinalist at Québec City last fall, has drawn two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. This match might also be destined to be a 'learning experience'… but stranger things have happened.

- Adam Lincoln

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