- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Sloane Stephens says there’s no need for hand-wringing over the future of American women’s tennis in the post-Williams era _ the kids are going to be all right.

The 18-year-old Floridan, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 89 last fall, moved into the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Silvia Soler-Espinosa of Spain.

Four other American women are also through to the second round _ Serena Williams, Christina McHale, Vania King and Jamie Hampton, a qualifier ranked No. 144 who had won only one WTA-level match coming into the Australian Open.

“When (the Williams sisters) stop playing tennis, there’ll be someone else to take their spot,” said Stephens, who also reached the third round of the U.S. Open last year. “You’re kind of like searching for someone to be there right now and I don’t think that’s going to happen. But there’s a lot of us, so who knows who could break through.”

She says now that a few of the younger Americans have broken into the top 100 _ McHale (No. 42), Irina Falconi (No. 81) and herself _ there’s more competition among them, which will only make them better in the long run.

“Definitely when we have camps and we’re practicing together, it’s serious, it’s no joke. On changeovers, it’ll be ha-ha, hee-hee, but when it’s time to play, it’s like, OK, I’m going to cut you.”

Just because they’re starting to come into their own, though, doesn’t mean they’re not still in awe of the elder stateswoman of the tour: Serena. Stephens was so star-struck at a recent tournament, she almost didn’t say hello.

“She was really nice,” Stephens says. “I don’t think she knew who I was.”

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BROTHERLY LOVE: Rift? What rift?

Andy Roddick believes that talk of tension between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been completely overblown.

Earlier this week, Nadal criticized Federer in the Spanish media for not doing enough to push the players’ demands for changes to the men’s game, allowing others to “burn themselves” to make conditions better for everybody.

The Spaniard later apologized for airing his disagreement with Federer in public.

“Those guys have been the model of a respectful rivalry in sports, so for it to be represented any differently is unfortunate,” Roddick said Tuesday after his first-round win at the Australian Open.

“I think this is all new territory for us. I think, if anything, it probably taught us that we have to choose our words very wisely right now when talking about it because it is a sensitive issue.”

The players held a meeting Saturday to discuss their concerns about the tour, which include the length of the season, the number of tournaments players are required to enter and prize money at Grand Slam tournaments.

Roddick says there’s no “quick fix” to the problems, but he believes the players have a unity they lacked before.

“It is fascinating to see how it will play out,” he says. “You know, I think as the product, I don’t think we should underestimate our leverage in this game, especially if we do have one voice.”

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FINALLY FIT: Maria Sharapova said it felt like “forever” since she last played a match without pain, although she didn’t hang around long on Hisense Arena to enjoy the experience.

Finally recovered from a left ankle injury she sustained in September, the Russian reeled off the first eight games in a 6-0, 6-1 rout of Gisela Dulko on Tuesday.

“I couldn’t wait to start,” the 2008 Australian Open champion said. “It’s just nice to go into a match you know that you’re going to compete again at such a high level in front of so many people, especially a place where I’ve won before.”

Sharapova said the ankle, which forced her to pull out of a planned tuneup event in Brisbane, was no longer troubling her. She may be only 24, but Sharapova is playing in her ninth Australian Open and the three-time Grand Slam winner said she is experienced enough to cope with not playing any matches coming into a major tournament.

Since a breakthrough win at Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova’s career has been punctuated by a series of injuries. She was out for nine months until May 2009 after right shoulder surgery.

Now, her focus is on being as healthy as possible when the major titles are on the line.

“I’d rather come in feeling good physically than feeling like I played a lot of matches,” she said. “It’s more important to me than anything. I’ve been on the tour for many years, played enough tournaments. I just want to be as ready as I can for the big ones.”

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VETERAN RIVALRY: Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt have been on the ATP Tour a combined 24 years, but surprisingly, they’ve played each other only 13 times.

The two veterans meet in the second round of the Australian Open after each won on Tuesday.

There are many similarities between the players: career records (Roddick is 589-197, Hewitt 551-205), titles (Roddick has 30, Hewitt 28), prize money (Roddick has $20 million, Hewitt $19 million).

Roddick has a 7-6 edge in their head-to-head record _ and he has won the last six times they’ve played dating to 2005. He’s also ranked 16th and Hewitt has slumped to 181st.

“I’ve won the most recent meetings, but I think out of the six that I’ve won, four or five have gone the distance,” Roddick says. “We always have a bit of a war.”

For that reason, the match could well be scheduled during the evening session on Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt was part of the latest finish in Australian Open history four years ago, closing out a victory over Marcos Baghdatis at 4:33 a.m.

“I don’t really want to have too many of the Baghdatis matches again,” Hewitt said. “Go home and McDonald’s is already open on the way home for breakfast.”

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AP Sports Writer Caroline Cheese contributed to this report.