By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Just as American writer Mark Twain described premature reports about his death as "greatly exaggerated", doom and gloom about U.S. women's tennis is way off the mark, according to WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster.
While some pundits question the future of the American game after world number one Serena Williams' stellar career ends, Allaster oozes optimism about the country's emerging prospects on the WTA Tour.
"I'm not at all concerned about what might happen post-Serena," Allaster, who took charge of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) in July 2009, told Reuters. "American tennis has always been very, very strong on the global tour.
"The fact that there are 14 Americans ranked in the top 100 right now, more than any other nation in the world, that is a very strong foundation of talent. There will never be another Serena, there will never be another Venus.
"I've often said they've been a gift to our sport and their legacy will continue for generations. Just look at the mosaic of players competing now at top level. They grew up watching Serena and Venus, so that will have a lasting impact for decades."
Serena, now aged 33, and Venus, 34, have won 26 grand slam singles titles between them and have each spent time at the top of the world rankings.
With Serena still firmly established as the game's leading player and Venus ranked 16th, the next best Americans in the global pecking order are Madison Keys (18th), Varvara Lepchenko (31st) and Coco Vandeweghe (33rd).
Allaster, who played an integral role in streamlining the WTA's tournament calendar to offset player absences, firmly believes that "national heroes" will underpin the strength of the U.S. game.
"What we know, from our consumer research, is that the number one thing that fans want is to follow their national heroes," said the 51-year-old Canadian, who has been named by Forbes magazine as one of the "Most Powerful Women in Sports".
"As long as they are red, white and blue, whether it's Taylor Townsend or CiCi Bellis, local and national stars will be supported by local fans, without question and irrespective of their ranking.
"I think Americans are very patriotic that way. Irrespective of the ranking, they will support their own. I feel incredibly excited and confident in U.S. tennis."
Though much still needs to be done to lure the 18-35 age group to the sport, there is encouraging growth in the under-10 range in the U.S., and Allaster feels the United States Tennis Association (USTA) is establishing solid foundations.
"They have recognised what they need to do on development and despite a lot of resistance to under-10 tennis from the traditionalists, they (the USTA) have said this is what we have to do," Allaster said.
"The entire tennis industry in the U.S. is doing all of the right things. The pipeline of talent is there across multiple ages and there is a whole pipeline of talent that we don't even know yet. I am super excited about what's going on."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry)