BIRMINGHAM, England—Madison Keys is not having a good day. Already 5-3 down in the first set of her quarterfinal match with Magdalena Rybarikova at the AEGON Classic, rattled and looking out of her depth, she finally puts together a good sequence of her favored forehands, only to put the last, finishing shot wide. The 18-year-old from Illinois turns her back, puffs out her cheeks, sighs at length, and then gets back to the game. She’ll be broken for the set and, shortly afterwards, lose the second 6-0.
In press later, she doesn’t seem too disconsolate, agreeing that she did ‘pretty well’ to make her third quarterfinal in her first year playing a full schedule without age restrictions. She’s unfortunate, perhaps, that as a neophyte on this surface (she played Nottingham and the qualifying at Wimbledon last year, losing in the first round of both) she’s drawn Rybarikova, a former champion here in 2009, whose quirky game works very well on these courts.
Relying heavily on her slice backhand and drop-shots which plump on the turf with the merest whisper of a bounce, Rybarikova is well in control from the beginning. Keys can’t get a kick off her serve, isn’t making up for it with placement or variety, and without it is struggling to get time on the ball, her feet set for the shot and her body inside the court. I can see her trying to go back to basics, to think her way through the match one labored step at a time, but it’s cold and windy and she can’t find her timing.
This match—indeed, all four quarterfinals—were supposed to be played on the brand-new Ann Jones Centre Court here at the Edgbaston Priory Club, but rain dogged the morning and early afternoon. It’s my first time at this tournament and so far I haven’t got much of an impression of it, spending the first few hours dodging in and out of the press centre as the grounds staff whip the covers on and off like some kind of horticulturalist burlesque show. Keys-Rybarikova is moved with little warning to Court 3, where there’s no seating, just balconies with a sort of concrete step at one end to sit or lean. Backed by gracious trees and a playing field dotted with soccer goalposts, it feels open and liberating in contrast to the hemmed-in, urban surroundings of Queen’s Club. It can also, one imagines, throw off a young player who was expecting an orderly entrance on to Centre.
The young American takes the loss quietly, perhaps too quietly. In press, asked to evaluate her year so far, she sets her face firmly towards the future, towards improvement: “[I’m] trying to get better and better and want more and more.” It’s ambiguously phrased, but whether she’s saying that she does want more and more or she is trying to want more and more, she places the question of her desire for success, for wins, and for this life squarely at the heart of her self-evaluation. It might tell you more about her than she would want you to know.
If Rybarikova is something of a grass-court specialist, Keys’ fellow quarterfinalist and compatriot, 22-year-old Alison Riske, is about as specialized as you can get—all of her 10 career wins on the WTA have come on these Priory Club courts. This is her third appearance in the quarterfinals since she stormed to the semifinals as a qualifier in 2010; this time, she faces Sabine Lisicki, another player who seems to play her best tennis on this surface. Like Keys earlier, Riske has also been shuffled to Court 1 late in the day as Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone engage in a long-drawn-out duel on Centre. Unlike her countrywoman, she’s at home from the beginning.
Watching Riske—admittedly with nothing to compare her performance to, because I’ve never seen her play before—I can’t quite understand why she’s struggled so much in her young career during the other 51 weeks of the year. Slight and not muscular, she plays attractive, first-strike aggressive tennis, happy to approach the net, each shot punctuated by a not unpleasant grunt that’s heavy on the diphthong and sounds a bit like the twanging of a string. She seems to like pace, and that’s one thing that Lisicki provides in spades. The German, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever, plays her usual blistering ballistic game, but Riske is impressively un-intimidated. Not quite dialed in on her groundstrokes, Lisicki plays a disastrous first-set tiebreaker in which she fails to win a single point on her serve, and Riske is, at this point, the steadier player.
I get the impression that Riske is not accustomed to occupying that position, and she is broken with two double-faults to give Lisicki the lead in the second. The fifth seed has settled now, alternating high balls on the backhand with flat shots for her preferred, blinding winners, and races to a 5-1 lead. As the evening gloom deepens, though, Riske again impresses me; she starts playing more aggressively than she has done in the match so far, producing some of her best serving and following it in to the net for a great hold for 2-5. She comes close to breaking Lisicki as the German serves for the set and makes an energetic start to the eventual third, refusing the favorite more than a toehold in her service games. As cold and dim as it is, with only a small group of diehards watching from the balconies, the match doesn’t lack for intensity or quality, but with the two women tied at 2-2, the match is suspended for lack of light.
As the players gather up their things, it starts to pour with rain; a rare instance of judicious timing on the part of the British weather. Riske and her coach stroll back to the player’s area, heedless of the rain, chattering intently. It’s all still to play for, but Riske has earned herself one more day on these courts which have been such a happy hunting-ground for her. I get the feeling that she’ll fight tooth and nail to extend her stay.