US optimism more than blind hope

By now, two days into a tennis major, the US media usually have rushed in to talk about all the new hope in American tennis. Why the rush? Because the future is now! No, really it’s because in two more days, everyone but Serena Williams usually would be out.

So it’s now or never. And I’m usually ridiculing the rush. But this time, for the first time in years, the hope looks realistic. On the women’s side, that is. With men? Not so much.

On Tuesday, 18-year old American Madison Keys beat young Brit hope Heather Watson, 6-3, 7-5, in the first round. It was Keys’ first match ever at Wimbledon, even though she already is ranked No. 52. And that match probably didn’t draw much attention.

But while everyone is watching Williams and Maria Sharapova (and maybe Victoria Azarenka), a new and very real battle is taking place in the next tier down.

It’s an incredible opportunity for all young players from any country, really. But the news is that the Americans suddenly are in position to consider the opportunity theirs, too.

The women’s tour has a massive quality gap after the top three players.

Call it a quality cliff, actually. The depth has disappeared.

The timing is perfect for US tennis. It comes just when the young US women finally have taken one giant step forward as a group.

It was legendary coach Nick Bollettieri who invented a way to develop an entire generation of tennis players. He put them all together and, as he told me Tuesday while quoting his former student, Jim Courier, let them “beat the s*** out of each other to get to the stadium court.’’

Spain followed the model, and now some of the US women are growing together as a group, too.

I talked with Keys about this after her match Tuesday. She said she practices with Jamie Hampton, now ranked No. 25, and with Melanie Oudin, who made the famous run to the US Open quarterfinals a few years ago. She talked, too, about the comfort of traveling the world with familiar faces.

“We’ve been kind of feeding off each other,’’ she said. “It seems like countries usually come up together. So it’s great that this is kind of our time right now.’’

Hold on. Slow down. It’s too early to say that this is the US’ time. This is only to say that the US finally is in position to possibly have a time. Four American women reached the final 16 of the French Open a few weeks ago, the most to get that far in a major in nine years.

That was seen as accomplishment, but really was just one giant step forward. Basically, while it wasn’t like winning the World Series, it was like getting into the majors.

The thing is, the talk around women’s tennis is how Williams, at 31, is dominating again. True, it’s impressive. But when she was younger, she had to fight Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters, a young Venus Williams and Sharapova before her surgery.

Now, well, she doesn’t. Those were all historically great players.

“You’re absolutely right,’’ Bollettieri said. “There’s a great opportunity.’’

Bollettieri said that Keys, who’s 5-foot-11, has a top serve and forehand but lacks quickness and needs to add defense. Sloane Stephens, who beat an injured Serena Williams at the Australian Open and is ranked No. 17, has great technique and physique but needs finesse and mental toughness.

Both are in the second round at Wimbledon, after Stephens beat Hampton. In a Wimbledon warm-up, Hampton beat two top-10 players before losing in the final.

There are other possibilities from other countries, such as France’s Kristina Mladenovic, who stayed close to Sharapova in the first round;  and Brit Laura Robson, who beat 10th seed Maria Kirilenko on Tuesday. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico beat fifth seed Sara Errani in the first round.

These aren’t household names, but someone has to fill the semifinals with the Big Three. So can you look at the group and predict which one will take the next step?

“I used to be able to,’’ Bollettieri said.

But the advantage for the Americans might be that they are rising as a group. Oudin folded under the pressure when she had her great US Open run. She has said that with a group, there is no pressure on any one player.

James Blake was talking optimistically about the young US men, too, Tuesday, but he made a point that would apply to the women.

“We have guys that are kind of on the cusp. And I think it’s going to take one of those guys breaking through, and they’re all going to follow," Blake said. ". . . Once they see one of these guys can do it, they’re all going to say, `You know what? I can do it, too.’ ’’

No American sports fan will even notice when someone reaches the top 15. It’s about winning majors. And no one is ready to beat Serena here, honestly.

But once one of these young players breaks through, it’s easier to stick. You start to believe you belong there, and others on tour believe it, too.

The path is clear to make the jump. Of course, it’s also there for all Americans not named Serena to go home in two days.