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New generation of U.S. women's tennis players looks promising

Competing at the BNP Paribas Open are players who could follow in the footsteps of Serena and Venus Williams: Taylor Townsend, Madison Keys, Mallory Burdette, Christine McHale, Jamie Hampton, Maria Sanchez.

March 08, 2013|By Diane Pucin
  • Taylor Townsend eyes the ball for a return against Lucie Hradecka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells.
Taylor Townsend eyes the ball for a return against Lucie Hradecka at the… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )

Taylor Townsend has both confidence and charm.

The 16-year-old can smile when she talks about some hubbub caused last year at the U.S. Open when it was publicly suggested the teenager might be too chubby.

Since the suggestion was made by the United States Tennis Assn., which offers funding and coaching help to top athletes, the criticism carried more, um, weight. But Townsend has gone on her tennis way, which is to hit big ground strokes and use USTA coaches and trainers to keep making her better.

Townsend is noticeably slimmer than she was at the Open last fall, and she was a first-round winner Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

She is also part of a generation of American women's players who seem to be on the upswing and ready to inherit the top spots that have been in the grasps of Serena and Venus Williams for more than a decade.

Nineteen-year-old Sloane Stephens upset a hobbled Serena at the Australian Open to make her first semifinal of a major tournament this year.

Besides Townsend, 18-year-old Madison Keys, 22-year-old Mallory Burdette, 20-year-old Christine McHale, and 23-year-olds Jamie Hampton and Maria Sanchez have won first-round matches here.

On Friday, McHale couldn't quite pull off a second-round upset — she lost to 13th-seeded Russian Maria Kirilenko, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. Stephens hasn't played yet because she's seeded 15th. Lauren Davis, 19, and Grace Min, 18, were also in the main draw, Min through the tough process of qualifying.

And Friday night, Sanchez, who recently graduated from USC, used her wild-card invitation to at least experience the big Stadium 1 court in her second-round match, a 6-2, 6-1 loss to third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.

Ten Americans (including No. 1 Serena Williams) are in the top 100, but it is the performances here of Townsend, Keys, Burdette and Hampton in particular, along with Stephens' Australian Open semifinal appearance, that make the future seem bright for American women's tennis.

"A lot of us train together," said Hampton after her 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 first-round win over American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands. "We like each other. We eat together, we practice together."

Townsend said it is nice in a friends' kind of way to have so many good players on tour from the same country and good in a competitive way that there are so many close in age. "Yes, we can feed off each other," Townsend said.

"We push each other, we practice with each other, we help each other."

"It's good for us to have each other," said McHale, who is trying to rebuild her game after missing a part of last year with mononucleosis.

McHale has already been as far as the third round at each of the four major tournaments and said she expects that she and the other American youngsters will do that and more in the coming years.

Second-seeded Maria Sharapova, who was part of a large group of talented Russians who seemed to rise together, said it helps to be part of a pack.

After her businesslike 6-2, 6-1 win over former French Open finalist Francesca Schiavone, Sharapova said, "It helps having compatriots, not only to set an example for you, but that you're competitive with enough to raise your own level, to want to beat them.

"At that age you're very competitive. You want to be that first one to win a Grand Slam or get farther in the rankings than the rest, to prove yourself."

The 25-year-old Sharapova proved herself with her four major titles. So she wants to wait and see what the new sensations can do. "There is a thin line of achieving a great result in one event," she noted. "Consistency is one of the biggest keys."

On the court

A young American man, 20-year-old Jack Sock, squandered a match point and lost to big-serving veteran Ivo Karlovic, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-2.

"When you have match point," Sock said, "the match seems like it's pretty much in your hands. I had a pretty routine backhand up the line to make, and I missed it by a couple of inches and missed a simple forehand to lose the set."

Off the court

Tournament owner Larry Ellison conducted a groundbreaking ceremony to symbolize the plan for a new and permanent Stadium 2 court that will have 8,000 seats and, said Ellison, two restaurants, one of which will be a Nobu sushi eatery. There will also be four additional practice courts built.

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic did an introductory news conference. He was at a recent Lakers game and said he met Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

"Great athletes and great personalities," Djokovic said. "I was really surprised that they like tennis. Dwight Howard, in his own way, in words, was describing to me how much he was playing tennis and how he won a tournament in eighth grade because his teachers made him play tennis for the first time. So maybe, with those shoulders, he can have a big serve."

Lakers fans would probably settle for big dunks and rebounds.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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