By Mark Meadows
LONDON (Reuters) - Venus Williams's first-round win at Wimbledon on Monday was a small but important step in American women's tennis re-establishing itself after injuries to the five-times champion and sister Serena had exposed an alarming lack of depth.
Very few of the fans dodging the south London rain will have heard of any of the other American women in the draw for the grasscourt grand slam despite the nation's history of success with Billie Jean King and Chris Evert among the greats.
Venus, out for five months with an abdominal problem, hammered Akgul Amanmuradova 6-3 6-1 with little sign of nerves but the same cannot be said for her compatriots lingering well down the world rankings.
"At this point I don't think there's as many people in general in U.S. tennis as we're used to seeing. So I think that's a priority (to address), especially in terms of the U.S., which is so used to having five or six people in the top 10 on each side," Venus told a news conference.
Her sister Serena, the Wimbledon champion, has been out even longer with various health problems and is set to give worried U.S. tennis aficionados a further boost by facing Aravane Rezai in her first-round match on Tuesday.
Otherwise it is a bleak picture with Bethanie Mattek Sands, a place below Venus in the rankings at 31, better known for her wacky dress sense and penchant for wearing knee high socks than her forehand or serve.
Unheralded Alison Riske did take a set off second seed Vera Zvonareva in her first-round loss but it is the men's game where Americans appear to be faring better despite a lack of grand slam success in recent years.
Ryan Sweeting plays defending champion Rafa Nadal in the second round after battling past Pablo Andujar in a five-set nerve-jangler and reckons the state of the U.S. game is not as bad as some pundits believe.
"I don't really think that American tennis is dead, a lot of players are winning matches. It's tough with the hype and aura around Roger Federer and Rafa to really focus on American tennis but I feel American players are playing well," Sweeting told Reuters.
"A lot of bright things are to come from U.S. tennis. There are a lot of younger American girls coming up now and it takes time to develop, it doesn't happen overnight. Bethanie Mattek Sands is trying to make a run, she's going in the right direction."
The dearth of U.S. talent contrasts markedly with the influx of American fans into the All England club, with many taking photographs at the plaque which remembers last year's 11-hour epic between compatriot John Isner and France's Nicolas Mahut.
The general consensus among U.S. fans is that tennis is getting squeezed out in American high schools where the choice of many sports and the need to study and party makes dedication to the racket difficult, unlike in Eastern European nations.
"People in Europe are almost trained to play one sport their entire time but in the U.S. people try out lots of different sports," Abi Getto told Reuters as she queued for tickets.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)