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Everyone loved him. Is that surprise enough? There was Donald Young pounding his heart, spinning and leaping with an endearing grin on his face, surrounded by 6,106 of his newest best friends. "It was all because of you guys," he told the Grandstand crowd at the U.S. Open on Sunday. And everyone cheered, bathing the man who had long been their most visible symbol of wasted talent with smiles and claps and nods. The only thing more stunning was the idea that here, perhaps, was the next face of American tennis.
No one saw this coming. Call it hype fatigue, but as one former phenom after another crashed out in the tournament's first days, U.S. players felt a coolness from the crowds. "Everyone's holding their breath for the next American to step up," said Ryan Sweeting, 24, after his first-round loss. "I don't feel that electricity that I'm used to feeling in New York."
Yet even as Sweeting spoke, a fresh charge began coursing through Flushing Meadow. Big-serving, still-growing, 16-year-old Madison Keys announced herself in a three-set loss to 26th-ranked Lucie Safarova. "She reminds me of Venus and Serena at 16," says Chris Evert. "She has the fearlessness, confidence, athleticism." Then with her speed and powerful forehand, 18-year-old Sloane Stephens overwhelmed No. 24 Shahar Peer in straight sets before falling 6--3, 6--4 to Ana Ivanovic in the third round. "She has potential to be top 20," Ivanovic said after. "Top 10," Evert says.
Both Keys and Stephens have formidable talent—and poise and power to spare. That lull in American tennis? "Done," Stephens said, grinning. "We're ready to go to the top, baby."
That's been said before, of course—especially about Young, who then spiraled down a spider hole of entitlement before sabotaging himself in April. Angry at being forced by the USTA's Patrick McEnroe to earn a wild card into the French Open, Young vented on Twitter: "F--- USTA! Their full of s---! They have screwed me for the last time!"
Considering all the help he'd received from the USTA, Young's tantrum was laughable; his apology came off as forced. After a lackluster summer he entered the USTA's premiere event ranked 84th—then provided this Open's biggest jolt of all. Displaying a new grit and professionalism, Young outlasted 14th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka to win his first-ever five-set match last Friday and then backed it up with Sunday's straight-set win over veteran Juan Ignacio Chela. More important, at 22 he spoke like someone ready to grow up at last.
"I can improve," Young said. "You can always improve and never feel like you know everything, which was probably a big thing of mine. I felt I didn't need to work as hard as other people."
Young and USTA officials also said nice things about each other, insisting they've made peace. The crowd on Sunday even chanted a hearty U-S-A!—and it didn't sound forced. For the first time in a long while, in fact, it sounded like something with a compelling future.