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An all-American Fab Four: the U.S. Open women's semifinalists

It wasn’t so long ago that Madison Keys was regularly asked to explain the decline of American women’s tennis at the elite level, and there were good reasons for those questions. Venus and Serena Williams were thriving but other women touted as the next greats were being held back by injuries or self-doubt. There was talent in the development pipeline but it wasn’t flowing smoothly or translating into championships at major tournaments, leaving the Williams sisters to carry the flag.

Keys won’t have to face those questions again for a while.

On Wednesday she turned the U.S. Open semifinals into an all-American event, subduing her nerves to defeat qualifier Kaia Kanepi of Estonia 6-3, 6-3 in a quarterfinal match at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Keys joined Venus Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe, and Sloane Stephens in creating the first American-only U.S. Open women’s semifinal since 1981, when Tracy Austin, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Barbara Potter reached that stage. Keys will face Vandeweghe and Venus Williams will face Stephens on Thursday for spots in Saturday’s final.

“I can't tell you how many times I have sat in this chair and had to hear how horrible tennis is in America,” Keys said. “So this feels really good.”

The pressure was on her Wednesday night to secure the American women’s semifinal stranglehold. Venus Williams had done her part on Tuesday with a third-set tiebreaker victory over Petra Kvitova. Stephens won the same way, against Anastasija Sevastova. No. 20 seed Vandeweghe kept it going Wednesday afternoon with a poised and heady 7-6 (4), 6-3 upset of World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. Keys didn’t want to let the side down.

But this was a new situation for Keys, who is coached by three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport. Keys wasn’t supposed to beat No. 4 Elina Svitolina in the fourth round but she pulled out a three-set victory. She was expected to beat Kanepi. It was a lot to ask, and Keys didn’t get off to a rousing start. She faced three break points in the third game of the first set but fought back to win the game with a forehand winner, a big emotional lift.

“I think once I came back from that, I kind of relaxed a bit,” said Keys, whose season debut had been delayed until March while she recovered from two wrist surgeries. “Definitely started really nervous. Kind of feeling like I was getting on a roll definitely helped relax me and helped me loosen up to play some of my best tennis.”

She wasn’t always sure that would be possible here — or anywhere else. “Having all of the things that were kind of thrown at me this whole year and having some really low moments,” she said, “and there was a moment where I came off the court and I said, ‘I don't know if I'm ever going to win a tennis match again.’ There was definitely a lot of dark moments. To have this really feels good and makes me really proud of myself.”

Vandeweghe’s career also had been stalled by injuries, plus her inability to harness her emotions. She had won the U.S. Open junior girls title as a wild-card entrant in 2008 and thought success would come easily. It didn’t, and she drifted in search of a way to unlock the potential she always believed she had.

With the guidance of Pat Cash, who became her coach a few months ago, her faith was justified with a victory that will dump the surprisingly flat Pliskova out of the top spot in the rankings. After they traded breaks in the fourth and fifth games of the second set Vandeweghe broke Pliskova’s serve again for a 4-2 lead with a forehand passing shot. She saved a break point in the final game and won on her second match point, when Pliskova hit a forehand into the net.

Success has taken longer to arrive than Vandeweghe had expected, but that didn’t matter to her on Wednesday. “It’s a process,” she said, “but I couldn’t wish for anything better.”

The last Grand Slam that featured four Americans in the women’s semifinals was Wimbledon in 1985, when Evert, Zina Garrison, Martina Navratilova and Kathy Rinaldi were the standard-bearers. Rinaldi, now the national women’s coach of the U.S. Tennis Assn. and the Fed Cup captain, was at Flushing Meadows to revel in the success of this new Fab Four. “I couldn’t be happier for the players and their coaches and their teams. It’s amazing,” Rinaldi said. “It’s wonderful for American tennis, it’s wonderful for our youngsters coming up. These four ladies in the semifinal are not only tremendous athletes, they’re tremendous ladies and role models. It’s super exciting.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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