(Reuters) - For well over a decade, the efforts of Serena Williams and Venus Williams have kept American tennis afloat.
The last American not named Williams to even reach a grand slam final was Andy Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009 and the last American winner outside the Williams family was Jennifer Capriati at the Australian Open in 2002.
Lindsay Davenport did reach two finals in 2005, in Australia and at Wimbledon but while Serena and Venus have won 30 grand slam singles titles between them, their dynasty has arguably papered over the cracks.
With Serena preparing to have her first child, Venus will carry the family hopes at the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday, the 37-year-old having surprised everyone by already reaching the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year.
For the first time in many years, the host nation has other legitimate title contenders.
“It’s a great time for American tennis,” Madison Keys, who won the title in Toronto this month, said in a telephone interview.
Keys is one of seven American women in the world’s top 50 – four of them are in the top 21 - and will be seeded inside the top 16 at Flushing Meadows, high on confidence after finally recovering from a wrist injury that required two operations.
Behind Venus Williams (9), Serena Williams (15), Keys (16) and Coco Vandweghe (21), Lauren Davis and Catherine (Cici) Bellis, who was outside the top 200 just a year ago, are now both inside the top 40, reason for optimism.
“It’s always great to have people that you grew up with playing well,” Keys said. “It’s amazing for me to see not only Venus still doing well, but to see Sloane (Stephens) doing well, coming back from injury, and me and Coco having great matches (they have played twice this summer), so it’s a really fun time right now.”
Stephens’ return to form has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer, the 24-year-old back after 10 months out with a right foot issue to reach back-to-back semi-finals in Toronto and Cincinnati.
Keys believes the American crowd could play a big role over the next fortnight.
“They want to help you get back into matches and I think they are a really important part of it a lot of the time,” she said. “There’s really no feeling like it (as an American), walking out onto (Arthur) Ashe (Stadium) Court.”
Vandeweghe, now coached by former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, is a big hitter capable of big tennis on the biggest of stages.
Keys, Stephens and Vandeweghe have all reached grand slam semi-finals, all in Melbourne.
But it is Keys, finally pain-free and with confidence restored, who may carry the best hopes of the American women.
“I have been really good lately about not getting ahead of myself, going match by match, so I’m just going to focus on that,” she said.
“I’m feeling really good and playing some good tennis but more than that I am just really enjoying my time on the court, so hopefully I can keep everything up.”
Reporting by Simon Cambers in London; Editing by Frank Pingue