NEW YORK—Jelena Jankovic versus Madison Keys was one of those matches that could have gone any number of ways. Jankovic, the ninth-seeded Serb, is a former world No. 1 and U.S. Open finalist (2008) who came into the match after a resurgent summer; she’s a contender for the WTA Championships for the first time since 2010 after falling out of the Top 20 in 2012.
On the other side of the net was a different kind of promise in 18-year-old American Keys, already ranked No. 39, who has already claimed some big wins in her young career, including against Li Na earlier this year in Madrid. She has exactly the sort of résumé that makes American fans dream of a breakout tournament for a promising young countrywoman.
But a match-up that could have produced fireworks instead fizzled from the start. Maybe it was the depleted energy in the stadium, where Fernando Verdasco had just treated a packed house to one of his marathons of masochism, coming back from two sets to love against Ivan Dodig, only to lose in five sets over more than three hours. The moment that match ended, fans fled the jam-packed Grandstand in droves, leaving a mountain of empty seats and sense of anticlimax in the air.
That was the backdrop against which Jankovic and Keys began play and they both came out to nervy starts: Jankovic incorrectly questioning calls and Keys—going for broke with her ferocious and flat groundstrokes—putting ball after ball into the net or the back wall.
Jankovic settled down quickly, and had Keys done the same, we might have been treated to a compelling contrast in styles and storylines: The American’s raw power against the Serb’s variety and defense. But Keys, who seemed increasingly self-exasperated as the contest wore on, urging herself to calm down and “C’mon on!” never found her form for more than a few points at a time. By the time it was over, she had produced 39 unforced errors over 19 games as Jankovic ran away with the contest, 6-3, 6-4.
When Keys was on point, she was as formidable from the backcourt as any woman on tour with the possible exception of Serena Williams, pounding groundstrokes into opposing corners over and over. But she was rarely unable to sustain the tactic for more than a few strokes before committing an unforced error, or was undone by Jankovic, who employed a veteran's savvy, airing out her groundstrokes to defuse Keys' power and deny her pace, effectively mixing in drop shots to keep her off guard, and coming to net to end points quickly.
Keys, on the other hand, seemed determined to hit through her opponent or die trying. She only mixed in off-pace balls when required to do so in the name of defense, and scarcely ventured to net, inviting Jankovic to outlast her over and over again.
And so experience won out over raw power tonight. Just a teenager, Keys can chalk this one up to a learning experience. She clearly has the foundation upon which a fearsome game can and will be constructed; once it’s married to more variety and guile, it should produce the right stuff. Who knows? By this time next year, it might even generate the kind of spark that kicks off one of those magical runs at the U.S. Open.
IBM Stat of the Match: Keys didn’t hit one volley in the entire match (although a few approach shots did produce outright winners); pairing her power ground game with opportunistic net play seems a surefire way to get the most out of her gifts.
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