Australian Open: Kerber d. Keys

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MELBOURNE—For a set, it looked as if Madison Keys had met her ultimate match in Angelique Kerber. The German specializes in retrieving shots from power players like Keys, and after watching a few of the American’s big forehands blow by her in the opening games, she started retrieving them right on cue. It helped that Keys, who was playing her first match inside a main Grand Slam stadium—Rod Laver Arena—looked like...she was playing her first match inside a main Grand Slam stadium. In the end, Kerber was too steady, too resourceful, and too experienced, and she advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2, 7-5 win.

We learned a lot about Keys—what she does well and what she needs to improve—in the first 10 minutes of the match. The much-heralded 17-year-old prospect was broken in her opening service game after making three unforced errors and double faulting. In the next game, though, she broke back after blistering a couple of ground strokes that seemed to take Kerber by surprise. When she’s clicking, Keys has the power to hit the ball by people without having to flirt with the lines. But that brief up was followed by a long down for Keys, as the errors began to flow again, and kept flowing through the rest of the set. At the same time, Kerber had success not just defending, but moving Keys across the baseline, especially with her sharp-angle crosscourt backhand. 

The second set was more competitive, as Keys, who said she pressed early because she was nervous and felt like she had to raise her level, settled in and showed off her backhand. By the middle of the set, it was a scrap. Keys showed nice instincts by following a drop shot to net and knocking off a volley. But her increased consistency was also a showcase for Kerber’s defense. The more big shots Madison hit, the more great gets Kerber slapped back. 

Rain came in the middle of the second, and the two resumed under the roof at 4-4. Keys found her range in the controlled conditions, knocking backhands past Kerber to each corner. She went up 5-4, 0-30 on Kerber’s serve, and when a forehand by the German was called wide, it appeared that we were heading for a third set. But Kerber threw her hand up to challenge—she didn’t look all that confident in it—and the replay showed that the ball had caught a millimeter of the sideline. The point was replayed, and Keys’ backhand spell was broken. She lost that game and was broken at love in the next one. Keys gave herself one last chance when she reached break point at 5-6, but squandered it by sending an easy second serve return wide.

The stats told much of the story. Kerber hit 11 winners and made 12 unforced errors; Keys hit 32 winners against 43 errors. Keys also didn’t get much mileage out of her usually strong serve. She made just 52 percent of her first balls, and won just 41 percent of points on her second.

In the end, the match went predictably. Keys kept her future prospects intact, while Kerber showed how tough she is to beat right now. The German moves on to play Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round.

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