While Serena Williams is gunning for her 24th Grand Slam title at the age of 36, the future of American tennis looks bright.
Sloane Stephens’ victory at the US Open last year was the first for any American other than Serena and Venus Williams since 2003.
Waiting in the wings behind the 25-year-old Stephens and 23-year-old Madison Keys, whom she beat in New York, is a crop of hugely talented US junior players.
Last month, Cori “Coco” Gauff won her first junior Grand Slam title at just 14 years of age, beating Caty McNally (main photograph, above) in three sets in an all-American girls’ final at Roland-Garros to become the youngest champion since Martina Hingis in 1994.
In fact, US girls are now so dominant, they have won five of the last seven Grand Slam singles championships.
“When we play on the court against each other, obviously, we are competitive,” said the prodigously talented Gauff, who reached last year’s US Open junior final when she was just 13. “But if we’re not playing each other, we are all cheering each other on,” she told wimbledon.com.
The US junior success is in part the result of the US Tennis Association (USTA) centralising its player development programme in the past ten years or so in Florida, according to Patrick McEnroe, who headed up the programme between 2008 and 2014.
When he first took the job, America’s most talented junior players “were sort of scattered around the country,” said McEnroe, younger brother of three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe.
“Our goal was always to try and raise the level of coaching, but also to try and get the best players together,” he explained. “It raised the bar a little bit. It forced everybody else that was coaching young kids to raise their game.”
For Cincinnati-based McNally, who took the girls’ doubles title with Poland’s Iga Swiatek at Roland-Garros, the USTA’s sprawling state-of-the-art base in Orlando, which has 100 tennis courts, has become an important base.
“When I am not playing a tournament, or have some off-time, I try to usually go down to Orlando and they’ll try to get a bunch of the girls together and we will have camps,” the 16-year-old explained.
Although most junior players have their own coaching set-ups, they gather in Florida regularly for training camps, while they also get assistance from the USTA during the big events such as The Championships.
“I’ve been to Orlando a lot,” said Gauff, who is now guided by Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams.
“The coaches there, they helped when I was younger. Their coaches were always telling my dad what I needed to work on and they had the technology to help with that. They definitely helped a lot with how I play.”
McNally, who is coached by her mother and Kevin O’Neill, spent two weeks training in Orlando before Roland-Garros.
“We did really hard training and on-court sessions and I think that helped me a lot,” McNally said.
With so many lucrative professional sports leagues for male athletes in the US, it hasn’t always been easy to attract boys to tennis, McEnroe said.
“We’ve never really struggled with the young women, we have a great crop of young women, it seems, year-after-year,” said McEnroe. “We’re starting to see that we are getting some better boys, too. That’s proving to be a little more difficult.”
This year, American Sebastian Korda, the son of former Australian Open champion, the Czech, Petr Korda, won the Australian Open boys’ title. It was the first for US boys since Taylor Fritz won the US Open junior championship in 2015.
“Generally speaking, we have a much more diverse background of young females playing tennis and they are more athletic,” McEnroe said. “If they’re really into sports and they’re athletic and they’re young, they tend to go to tennis more quickly.
“Whereas the boys, tennis may be their fourth or fifth choice, so maybe we are not getting the absolute best athletes. And as we are seeing here and at other tournaments, if you are not a great athlete in addition to being a great tennis player, it’s going to be hard to make it.”