By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
Until they someday retire, Serena and Venus Williams will seemingly always be royalty among active Americans on the WTA Tour.
Behind them, it’s hardly a stretch to consider 20-somethings Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys Tour veterans. They each have more than decade’s worth of pro experience.
“Thanks for bringing that up again,” Keys said tongue in check this week before her first-round match against 17-year-old Hailey Baptiste- the latest reminder that the next generation is fast approaching.
A case could be made at this week’s Citi Open that they’ve already arrived.
From 15-year-old Coco Gauff cruising through qualifying last weekend, to Baptiste and fellow teen Catherine McNally earning their first career WTA wins on Tuesday, to Gauff and McNally reaching the semifinals in doubles on Wednesday, the American girls have shown they mean business in Rock Creek Park.
“I think if one person does well, it helps push everyone else to do really well,” said McNally, a 17-year-old wild card. “I think everyone is pushing each other.”
McNally followed her maiden WTA singles win Tuesday with a second-round triumph over Christina McHale Thursday afternoon on Stadium Court. McNally outlasted McHale 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in 2 hours 15 minutes to secure a berth in the quarterfinals.
“I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, so I’m super happy that I was able to fight, push through and just mentally get over that hump,” said McNally who will play both her singles quarterfinal and her doubles semifinal with Gauff on Friday.
“I think that’s just a reality of what the Tour is like,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy, but whoever can handle all these situations and take all the positives and just bring the right energy, I think that’s who’s going to succeed.”
Among the rising Americans, Gauff is naturally the headliner after her remarkable run at Wimbledon last month. But as Gauff played her way into the fourth round at the All England Club, McNally and Baptiste paid close attention.
“It makes me want to do the same thing,” said McNally. “She got a lot of publicity, a lot of people are starting to come to her matches and want her autograph, and I think that just drives me more to do the same thing so I can have the same thing for myself.”
It also gives the American teens a belief that they can do the same.
“Obviously that gives her a lot of confidence,” Baptiste said of Gauff. “But knowing she’s one of my peers, it gives me confidence too.”
Added McNally: “It gives us hope, and it shows that we’re right there.”
The teens are all close friends and as they navigate through their first taste of life on the WTA Tour, being able to lean on each other has been a welcome boost.
“We’re all at a similar stage in our careers,” McNally said earlier this week, “and I know personally, I don’t know everyone on Tour yet, so it helps having friends around and being to help each other and motivate and push and drive each other to do well.”
BAPTISTE ENJOYS MAIDEN CITI OPEN EXPERIENCE:
Baptiste, who grew up just minutes from the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, also made the most of her main draw wild card. The D.C. native beat the second-seeded Keys before a standing-room only Grandstand crowd on Tuesday. She eventually fell on Stadium Court one night later in a three-set marathon in Round 2. But not before learning a little something about her game.
“Just knowing I can compete at this level; I’m right there with all the top players,” she said.
The experience of playing in her hometown tournament, will remain a lasting memory for Baptiste, who began playing tennis on these very grounds with the Washington Tennis Education Foundation when she was 4.
“It was really special,” she said. “It felt really good playing on that court. I’ve watched so many matches there, so many people I looked up to played on that court. It was really cool.”
Baptiste, who also passed through The Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park before moving to Florida, said that playing in her hometown tournament had a surreal feeling given all the time she spent watching it as a girl. Baptiste even bragged about sneaking in through back fences when she was a kid.
“I knew the people who worked there,” she explained.
Next up for Baptiste: The USTA Girls National Championships in San Diego where the winner will receive a main draw wild card into the U.S. Open.
Gauff is also expected to receive a wild card into the year’s final major.
As for McNally, she’s been granted a main draw wild card for the upcoming Western & Southern Open in her hometown of Cincinnati. First, though, business to tend to in Washington with a busy itenerary on Friday.