August 28, 2015 / 11:39 PM / 2 years ago

Keys, Stephens head next U.S. generation

Madison Keys of the U.S.A. reacts during her match against Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Henry Browne

(Reuters) - It has been 16 years since an American not named Williams won the U.S. Open women’s singles title, and the drought shows no sign of ending any time soon.

Lindsay Davenport was the 1998 champion at Flushing Meadows and since then Serena Williams, the heavy favorite going into the Aug. 31-Sept. 13 U.S. Open, has claimed six titles and sister Venus Williams two.

But Serena’s recent dominance does disguise the fact that Americans are few and far between at the top of the women’s world rankings, which are dominated by Europeans.

Madison Keys (19), Venus Williams (23) and Sloane Stephens (29) are the only other Americans in the top 40.

With 35-year-old Venus in the twilight of her career, the time has come for Keys and Stephens to fly the American flag, but does either have the mental and physical skills to reach the next level?

Davenport, who coaches 20-year-old Keys, has little doubt they have the physical skills.

“It’s hard to watch Madison and Sloane and not think, ‘Oh my gosh, these two are so talented and so good, and they are the future,'” Davenport told the New Haven Register recently.

“They have different strengths and different weaknesses ... I hope for the sake of American fans those two do figure it out and are rivals and get to the top and challenging for titles, because they both have what it takes to get there.”

Keys and Sloane both have one WTA title.

A quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon this year, and a semi-final loss to Serena at the Australia Open show that Keys is making progress in the big tournaments under the tutelage of coach Davenport.

Asked recently to gauge where she has improved over the past year, Keys cited her “movement” about the court.

”My movement has gotten a lot better,“ she told reporters. ”I’ve been having less of the bad matches where I came off the court and I was really disappointed with how I competed.”

Stephens, meanwhile, raised hopes of being the next great American when she advanced to the Australian Open semi-finals (beating Serena in the process) and Wimbledon quarters in 2013.

She has not progressed as rapidly since then as some would like, but her first WTA title recently in Washington, and a decision earlier this year to reunite with old coach Nick Saviano, seems to have her back on the right track.

“Last year I was going through a learning process,” Stephens, 22, said after her maiden title. ”I learned a lot about myself. And there’s still a lot of room to grow. Sometimes you have to go through the process.”

Keys and Stephens have talent and potential, no doubt, but so too do dozens of other young players around the world.

Until they back their hype with on-court performances, it would be prudent to take a wait-and-see attitude to how far they can go.

Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue

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