Opinion: The Williams sisters hid weaknesses in U.S. women's tennis that rival the decline of the U.S. men
There are only five American women currently ranked among the Top 35 in the world.
Gone are the salad days when the United States boasted a bloated embarrassment of riches on the women’s tennis Tour. Remember when the U.S. had Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova, Sharon Walsh, Pam Shriver, Kathy Jordan, Ann Smith, Janet Newberry, Barbara Jordan, and Kathy May? At the same time? Not only were these all “names”, but they were champions all, or whom JFK would refer to when acknowledging those in other fields as “the best and the brightest”.
Today the very upper echelon of American tennis is represented by, in order of their current ranking, Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams, Madison Keys, Alison Riske, Amanda Anisimova, Sloane Stephens, Jennifer Brady, Danielle Collins, Coco Gauff, and Bernarda Pera.
To give you an idea of just where American women's tennis stands competitively with other global stars, there are only five Americans currently ranked among the Top 35 in the world. Our #10 is ranked #60 in the world. Our top ranked player, who is really a native Russian, is ranked #4 in the world after capturing this year’s Australian Open. Serena Williams, who is a few months away from her 39th birthday, and clearly well past her prime and stretching her career simply to see if she can pocket another couple of Grand Slam tournaments to set the record, is currently ranked #9 in the world. Amanda Anisimova, who last May got to the semis of the French Open as a 17-year-old, and has a giant upside, is ranked #5 in the U.S. and #28 in the world. Sloane Stephens, a former U.S. Open Champion, is frustratingly inconsistent, but has all the talent in the world. If she could tame that talent and show some of the exuberance she used to show on court in her earlier days, she could lasso her current world ranking of #37 into more Grand Slam titles. But there are a lot more “ifs” and “coulds” to her future than she might care to admit and expecting more Slam titles from the delightful Stephens might be more of a wish than a prediction. Sixteen-year-old Coco Gauff, #9 in the U.S. and #52 in the world appears to be the real deal, and we may be watching her fifteen years from now celebrating her tennis excellence. But trying to predict what a 16-year-old may look like 15 years from now is best seen through a crystal ball, or some kind of “Back to the Future” annual sports almanac somehow transported back in time.
Thanks to the Williams sisters, America’s drought of tennis excellence and Grand Slam titles is even worse on the men's side as the last American Men’s Slam Champion was the long-retired Andy Roddick, who won the U.S. Open crown won in 2003. Without Serena and Venus, you have to go back to the days of Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport twenty years ago, to find other women Grand Slam champions. Still, the Top Ten Americans of 1999 were all ranked in the Top 38 in the world---not terrific considering the names listed above from the 70’s and very early 80’s, but still far better than today’s best. Just like with the American men, the American women have been marginalized by the rise of global and international tennis players, and maybe it’s time to recognize that the dominance of the Williams sisters for a fifteen year period had led us to think that American women dominated world tennis, but that was simply an illusion.