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Keys to success: Will Madison supersede Serena Williams?

11/17/2016, 7:59 a.m.
While Serena Williams is fixated on number 23, Madison Keys is just focusing on number one.
Tennis player Serena Williams speaks to CNN's Rachel Nichols after her sixth U.S. Open women's singles tennis title Sunday, September 7, 2014. (CNN)

— While Serena Williams is fixated on number 23, Madison Keys is just focusing on number one.

As Williams searches for grand slam title number 23 -- the one that will cement her as the greatest female player of all time -- Keys is being backed to deliver her first in 2017.

And when Serena hangs up her racket, countrywoman Keys could be in the frame to emerge as her successor -- not only according to Williams -- but also to a pair of legends with an incredible 36 majors between them.

"She's harnessing her power on both wings -- so much power -- and her serve is comparable to Serena Williams," Chris Evert told CNN's Open Court show.

"I think the reason why she's here to stay and she's the real thing is because she's taken baby steps."

The American star secured 18 major titles in her glittering career, the same figure as Czech-born Martina Navratilova, and both agree that 2017 could be the 21-year-old's breakthrough year.

Top 10 breakthrough

Keys has steadily built momentum during 2016.

The Illinois-born star secured her second WTA Tour title at Eastbourne in June, and subsequently became the first American woman to break into the world's top 10, since -- you guessed it -- Serena back in 1999.

After Keys at No. 7 comes Venus Williams at 17, the player that compelled her to get involved in the sport, and after that is Sloane Stephens down in 36th.

Keys' late run of form saw her make the final four in both Beijing, China, and Linz, Austria, and secured her a place at the season-ending WTA Finals for the first time.

"She didn't come on really strong like Genie Bouchard or Garbine Muguruza -- she hasn't been ready mentally," Evert explained. "The mental and emotional side is catching up with the physical side."

Navratilova agrees: "She's taming the power and she's picking the spots better when she's going for her shots. That match she played (against Dominika Cibulkova at the WTA Finals) ... I was really impressed.

"The younger generation is coming together nicely and we've been hoping Madison Keys would have a better year than last year."

Williams is well aware that Keys has the potential to be her protege.

The pair have met on three occasions, most recently in the final of the Italian Open in Rome back in May.

But even after their first encounter, at the Australian Open semifinal of 2015, Williams was glowing with praise for her vanquished opponent.

After a 7-6 6-2 victory that paved the way for a 20th grand slam success, Williams told the crowd in Melbourne: "It was an honor for me to play someone who will be No. 1 in the future."

Serena's quest for 23

Before Serena hands the baton on to Keys, she's got some serious business to attend to.

The 35-year-old's victory at Wimbledon this year -- her only grand slam title of 2016 -- pulled her level with Steffi Graf's record 22 titles in the Open era.