It has been quite a Grand Slam season for American teenagers on the women’s tennis tour, and though autumn is on the horizon, they continue to make a deep impression.
After the 15-year-old Coco Gauff defeated Venus Williams in her first match at Wimbledon last month, Gauff’s doubles partner, the 17-year-old Caty McNally, made a run at an even bigger upset in her first United States Open.
McNally won the opening set in style against Serena Williams before Williams rallied to prevail, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, in the second round on Wednesday night.
“I think the young American girls are inspiring each other,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the United States Fed Cup captain who has known McNally’s mother, Lynn, since they played junior tennis against each other. “When one of the girls has a good result it kind of lifts the other. It’s a healthy competition.”
The Williams sisters have of course provided no shortage of inspiration themselves. The American youngsters emerging now were all born after the Williamses turned professional. They include the 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, who reached the semifinals of the French Open in June, and the 20-year-old Sofia Kenin, who beat Serena Williams on her way to the quarterfinals of the same tournament and is up to No. 20 in the rankings.
A Williams-infused women’s tennis world is all the new arrivals have ever known.
“I’ve watched her so many times,” McNally said of Serena, whom she had never faced. “I know how well she can play. I was just really impressed with the way she was serving towards the end of the match, how well she was returning. Hats off to her.”
Hats off to McNally, too, for bearhugging the moment in her first match of this magnitude and pushing the greatest player of the era to three sets.
Williams is a more formidable opponent now than when Kenin toppled her in Paris. She is in better shape and form, and her movement and serving have improved considerably since she resolved the persistent knee pain that spoiled much of her early season.
But after the 37-year-old Williams overwhelmed Maria Sharapova, her longtime punching bag, in the first round on Tuesday, she had to solve a much less familiar tennis riddle on Thursday.
McNally, who comes from the Cincinnati suburb of Madeira, has a taste for old-school tennis. And in only her second U.S. Open singles match, she marched onto Arthur Ashe Stadium for the final duel of the night session with a big grin on her face.
She made it clear very quickly that Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was in for a serious challenge.
“I felt really good out there on the big stage; I wasn’t too nervous,” McNally said. “For me, I just try to take it as another match and not really worry about who’s across the net. I know if I did that it might affect the way I play, and I might become more emotionally attached to the match. That’s not good for me.”
McNally’s tennis role model has long been the most successful men’s player of this era: Roger Federer. Rinaldi teasingly calls her “Mrs. Fed,” and McNally has tried to mimic not only Federer’s cool on-court demeanor but his attacking style and versatility as well.
“I really like the way he plays, mixes in the slice, the drop shot, volleys really well,” McNally said. “There’s so many things I like from his game. Hopefully I can keep working on those and become just like him.”
That is, of course, a tall order, but McNally showed plenty of poise and potential under the closed roof in Ashe Stadium after reaching the semifinals at the WTA event in Washington this summer.
A powerful athlete, McNally likes to serve and volley, a tactic now rare enough to elicit gasps from a savvy tennis crowd. Like Federer, she has a particularly crisp one-handed slice backhand, and unlike Federer, she also can drive her backhand with two hands. She used that two-hander to try another rare ploy on Wednesday: attacking Williams’s second serve immediately after the bounce and following the return to net.
The results were mixed, but the approach was destabilizing.
“It was definitely something to get used to,” Williams said of McNally’s style. “You don’t play players like her who have such full games. I just think she over all played really well.”
Mixing speeds and spins and coming up with big serves when she needed them, McNally applied and absorbed pressure and was able to convert her only break point of the match to take a 6-5 lead in the first set.
She won it by rallying from 0-40 to hold serve, waving her arms to pump up the crowd as she arrived at her seat with a swagger in her step.
Seemingly rattled by McNally’s shifting tactics and forays to net, Williams was far from her sharpest in the opening set, making 15 unforced errors.
But though she shouted and winced in frustration as her groundstrokes smacked into the net, she did not let the frustration seep into her game for long on a court where she has won six Open singles titles but has also experienced meltdowns and demoralizing defeats.
“I just had to stop making errors,” Williams said. “I just made so many errors in the first two sets, and I mean it was just too many. You can’t win tournaments making that many errors, so I knew I had to play better, and I knew I could.”
She broke McNally’s serve for the first time in the sixth game of the second set, hitting a forehand return winner as McNally tried again to serve and volley.
After winning the set on her fifth set point, Williams hit the accelerator pedal in the third, attacking returns with intimidating precision and losing only five points in total: none on her serve.
It was a classic Williams performance. She has turned so many tricky matches her way through the decades: first against her elders and now against new arrivals not even half her age.
“Serena is the best in the world at turning a match around,” her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said.
“I definitely treasure it,” Williams said of that ability. “I’ve won so many Grand Slams because of it. I also won a lot of Grand Slams not having to use it.”
Her next challenge if she wants to win this one again is a third-round match against either the crafty Hsieh Su-wei or Karolina Muchova, another attack-minded newcomer who will face Hsieh on Thursday.
As for the American teenagers, Gauff is into the second round in singles and ready to team up with McNally in the doubles.
Unlike Williams, their Grand Slam days are just beginning, and they are off to a fine start.