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Serena Williams gives the U.S. a reason to remain excited about tennis

The United States Tennis Assn. should be thanking its lucky stars for Serena Williams.

It should be eternally grateful that Richard Williams dragged his two little girls out to the tennis courts of Compton some 25 years ago, that he got them interested in the sport that younger sister Serena now dominates.

"I remember them, just cute little kids in pigtails," says Wayne Bryan. "Their dad would put them in the car and drive them up the coast to my tennis club. They'd run around, hit some balls, just have fun. I always gave them cheeseburgers. I thought they were coming just for the cheeseburgers."

Bryan, of Camarillo, knows about getting children interested in tennis. His twin sons, Bob and Mike, have dominated the men's professional doubles circuit since the early 2000s.

At the moment, that is the sum total of U.S. provincial excitement about tennis: Serena Williams and, to a lesser degree her sister Venus, plus the Bryan twins.

The last U.S. male to win a major was Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open in 2003, a 12-year drought. And we think California is in bad shape.

John Isner is the highest ranking U.S. male at No. 17, and he is basically known, and likely always will be, for playing the longest match in Wimbledon history a few years ago. Only one other of his countrymen, Jack Sock at No. 31, is even seeded.

After Serena and Venus, seeded No. 1 and 16, respectively, the highest seeded U.S. female is Madison Keys at No. 21.

The USTA runs an annual soiree that generates more than enough money for use in inspiring youth to buy a racket and wander over to the park. It is called the U.S. Open. Financed inspiration from that has failed.

Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang are long gone. The USTA developed Donald Young, and is still developing him. He'll be 26 in late July. It developed Sam Querrey, who got to the final of a Wimbledon tuneup event at Nottingham on Saturday and lost, to vaunted Dennis Istomin.

It is easy to rationalize that America's sports-hungry youngsters are now emulating Mike Trout's swing and Steph Curry's jump shot. It is also easy to conclude that whatever approach the USTA is taking to produce tennis emulation is a bust.

There are plenty of U.S. tennis stars here at Wimbledon. But they are all behind microphones: John McEnroe, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver, Chris Evert, etc.

Is that our answer? No players, so we become the country of best tennis-talkers?

Which brings us to Serena Williams, the last American singles star standing. Should we nickname her Davy Crockett, or just Alamo?

The big deal here, and rightly so, is that she has a chance to win the third leg of a calendar Grand Slam. Part of the discussion is not only the rarity of such an achievement, but the rarity of even having a shot at her age. She will be 34 in September.

Lost in that media frenzy for age hyperbole is that she has won seven majors since she turned 30. She lives in Florida now and perhaps found that fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon was looking for centuries ago.

Two men and three women have completed a calendar Slam. Don Budge did it in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and '69. Little Mo Connolly did it in '53, Margaret Court in '70 and Steffi Graf in '88. Graf also won the Olympic gold in Seoul that year for her "Golden Slam."

It is a monumental achievement, and Williams herself seems to have it in the best perspective.

Asked about it in her pre-Wimbledon news conference, she said, "I don't feel any pressure to win all four. ... Maybe if I would happen to win here, then maybe I'd start feeling it after that."

"After that" would be the U.S. Open.

For the moment, the pressure seems to be on the media to squeeze in all the superlatives.

When she finishes here, win or lose, she will enter week No. 248 at No. 1 in the world. This is the third of her long runs at the top, totaling that 248, and this one started Feb. 18, 2013, or 124 weeks ago. She is the oldest woman to be No. 1 since tennis started its computer rankings in 1976.

Besides another step toward the calendar Slam, she would take her 21st major title, one behind Graf and three behind Court. Williams will open play here Monday afternoon, against a 20-year-old Russian qualifier, Margarita Gasparyan, ranked 113th.

Last year's Wimbledon was a nightmare for Williams. She lost in the third round to France's Alize Cornet, succumbing to a barrage of drop shots. Then she took the court a few days later for doubles with Venus, but looked like a zombie in warmups and, in the match, hit eight successive serves either into the net or bouncing to it.

She left after that, escorted by medics, and the WTA released a totally insufficient statement hours later, saying she hadn't felt well.

With Williams, there often is a hint of mystery. Her U.S. Open rant at the lines person a few years ago was unexplainable and, in the long run, unexplained. Her injuries and absences are always described in brief, inadequate terms.

But there is no mistaking her ability to play tennis.

Said fourth-seeded Maria Sharapova, "She's the one to beat." Sharapova usually doesn't.

Said last year's champion, second-seeded Petra Kvitova, "Serena is one of the players you can beat, but not every day." Kvitova has beaten Williams once.

Said defending men's champion Novak Djokovic, "She keeps on going. Doesn't look like anywhere near the end for her."

Columnist Filip Bondy of the New York Post wrote it best Sunday, sizing up both Williams and her place in the current state of U.S. tennis: "If you weren't rooting for — or were rooting against — Serena, there really wasn't much reason to remain passionate about the sport in this country."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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