Kathy Rinaldi, head of women's tennis at the USTA, remembers when she first met junior sensation and recent French Open semifinalist 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova. Years ago, Rinaldi and a colleague visited Anisimova near her Florida home on a scouting mission. They were bewitched by what they saw as soon as she took a few cuts, so enthusiastic that they got a little carried away.
"Her skill set was so advanced that as we worked her out we forgot that she was just 17 years old," Rinaldi told ESPN.com. "She actually got sick and had to leave the court. Then she was back just minutes later, ready to go again."
Anisimova is part of a new wave of U.S. players who may quickly wipe away the disappointment many feel about the way the US Open semifinal class of 2017 has faded. That year was a glorious moment for U.S. tennis: All four semifinalists of the home championship were American for the first time in 36 years. Shockingly, none of them was named Serena, although the Williams family was represented by 37-year-old Venus.
Venus was the icon. The other three semifinalists were the former prodigy (Madison Keys), the volatile showboat (Coco Vandeweghe) and a major who would finally fulfill her talent when she won the event, Sloane Stephens.
Excitable fans speculated that, with an age range spanning 15 years (Keys was 22, Williams, 37) and a diverse, compelling suite of skills, the four women could join Serena Williams to rule WTA tennis. It didn't work out that way. After her Grand Slam breakthrough, Stephens won the Miami Open and reached the French Open final in 2018 but has tapered off sharply. The other three semifinalists have won exactly one low-grade event among them since that enchanted moment in 2017.
The good news for U.S. tennis is that a new wave of 21-or-under players is emerging to challenge -- as well as motivate -- those elders. Sofia Kenin is the oldest in this kiddie corps, at age 20. Her peers include Anisimova, 17, and other developing players of the same age: Whitney Osuigwe (a French Open junior champ), Catherine McNally and Hailey Baptiste. And, of course, there's sensational 15-year-old Cori Gauff.
Martin Blackman, the USTA's general manager of player development, told ESPN.com: "Every week it seems a different young one is breaking through. These women are used to a high bar set by Venus and Serena. They see themselves at the top and they thrive on the positive peer pressure."
Rinaldi, a 52-year-old former WTA pro who is also Fed Cup captain, has worked with rising American players for so long that she's recognized as the den mother of U.S. tennis. She sees "tremendous" upside in the group, many of whom trained, traveled and fought the junior wars together. Gauff, who would have no trouble filling her dance card in doubles with almost any Top 20 WTA pro, played last week in the Washington, D.C., tournament with McNally.
Gauff, the once-in-a-generation prodigy, is not as deeply embedded in this group as the others. It's mostly because her obvious precocity at a tender age opened doors that don't swing back for others until much later, if at all.
"We [the USTA] have been there and will be there for Coco in the future," said Rinaldi, who works at the USTA's sprawling National Campus at Lake Nona, Florida. "But she already has her own team, her own place where she trains and lives."
Blackman believes the "flexibility" of the USTA system, which offers varying degrees of financial support and access to training and general expertise without making claims on, or dictating to, a prospect who is doing well, has been they key to developing this generation. It's also a group of outstanding athletes.
"We're starting to attract the best athletes the way other nations do, and you can put that down to Venus and Serena," Blackman said. "Success in tennis isn't just about skills anymore."
Gauff's presence in the group may not be significant, but her impact on it is -- especially as it followed hard on the heels of Anisimova's spectacular French Open performance. Rinaldi, who was present at both Anisimova's and Gauff's breakout moments, said that Gauff's seven-match (including qualifying) streak at Wimbledon wasn't the most significant teachable moment.
"The thing was, she lost in the qualifying at the French Open," Rinaldi said. "Then to go on to Wimbledon and achieve what she did -- that was the inspirational thing. It's that kind of self-belief and professionalism we try to instill."
Gauff's exploits somewhat overshadowed those of Anisimova, who has bolted to a ranking of No. 23 with a seamless, classic baseline game that contains a secret sauce -- her ability to hit severe angles and make full use of all the court space. That may be the beneficial residue of a junior career during which, she told ESPN.com in Paris, "I would play without a brain. I'd go for stupid shots all the time."
Those "stupid" shots didn't prevent her from playing the French Open junior final at age 13, or winning the US Open junior title in 2017 -- the same year the quartet of Americans played the main draw semis.The willingness to experiment has kept Anisimova from developing a by-rote game.
Anisimova also has nearly preternatural composure. This is the player who eliminated defending champion Simona Halep in the quarterfinals in Paris, then described her feelings before the semifinal, saying, "I'm not nervous at all. I'm just living life."
If Anisimova was dimmed by Gauff, both of them made it easy to overlook Kenin. The Moscow-born 20-year-old, who's ranked slightly behind Anisimova at No. 29, may not have the conspicuous talent of the other two young women. She can't compete with them in the stature department either, as Kenin stands just 5-foot-7. But she packs a big wallop, backed up by great competitive character and perhaps the best drop shot on the WTA Tour.
Kenin shocked many when she upset Serena Williams in the third round at the French Open. She went on to win the WTA grass-court event in Mallorca but ran out of steam on her favorite surface at Wimbledon. "I always knew I had game," she said in London. "I knew I wasn't the tallest. Now I'm fine [with that]. Obviously I have proven it. I beat Serena. I had a very tough match with Karolina [Pliskova] in Rome, gave her a hard time. Should have went my way ... but it's fine."
It seems no coincidence that McNally and Baptiste logged their very first WTA match wins last week in Washington, D.C. -- on the same day Gauff lost her own. The pair were the only two winners from a field loaded with U.S. players, six of whom lost in the first round. The casualties included the top two seeds, No. 1 Stephens and Keys -- the latter who was beaten by local product Baptiste.
Rinaldi likes to give nicknames to her favorite players. Baptiste, a power player with flair, has been dubbed "Hollywood." McNally is besotted with Roger Federer and patterns her smooth game after his. She's become "Mrs. Federer." We believe that Federer's real-life wife, Mirka, also a former player, would understand.
Rinaldi's kiddie corps is probably still a year or two away from contending at tournaments, but it may not be another 34 years before we see four American women in the US Open semifinals again.