Bringing the Big Cannons

Monday, June 23, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

Yesterday, a ray of sunlight broke through the gloom in which U.S. tennis has been mired lately: Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe won the final warm-up tournaments before the start of Wimbledon. It was the first time a brace of American women won tournaments in the same week since Venus Williams and Monica Seles in 2002.  

Nobody was there to take a crossing ball from Cristiano Ronaldo to spoil their greatest moments at the last second, either.

Keys won Eastbourne and Vandeweghe prevailed in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, each their first WTA title, fueling hopes at home that the U.S. won’t have to endure another painful Wimbledon—at least not in the women’s singles. The men write a different story, but you know what they say: Every silver lining has a dark cloud.

Keys, who is just 19, had two high-quality wins in Eastbourne: A first-round conquest of No. 3 seed Jelena Jankovic (6-3, 6-3), and a final triumph over No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber (6-3, 3-6, 7-5). Given that Keys is the newly named “Sports Illustrated Kids Special Correspondent,” you can bet that a lot of kids are going to be drilling holes in the garage door, hoping to serve like her.

Vandeweghe, 22, can’t match Keys’ journalistic bona fides on Fleet Street or Sesame Street, but she’s one of the few women on the tour who can match her, bomb for bomb, down the T or out wide. In fact, one of the more encouraging things here is that neither of these women is your typical, up-and-coming, baseline-hugging pro, subject to familiar limitations of power and pace.

Each of these young ladies can take a match out of the hands of her opponent; each has the ability to dictate the terms of surrender. The U.S. has been fighting a losing battle in international tennis; even the redoubtable Serena Williams has been struggling of late. So it’s particularly heartening for the domestic audience to see that the nation won’t be relying on grapeshot or the traditional 12-pounder Napoleons, but rolling out big cannons.

To wit: Keys belted a shiver-inducing 60 winners, including 17 aces, in her last win. She played with authority. Kerber is a solid baseliner, good at counter-punching and causing all manner of deviltry with she her dominant, left hand. Yet Keys kept her handcuffed for long portions of the match and kept the points so short that the match—which ended 7-5 in the third—lasted under two hours.

Rafa and Nole, take note.

Vandeweghe was even more authoritative, raining down 81 aces in seven matches, including 19 against Marina Erakovic in her first match. Even Ivo Karlovic might arch an eyebrow at such numbers. Vandeweghe, who’s ranked No. 69, played seven matches in the Netherlands—the same number it takes to win Wimbledon, in case you feel up to indulging in a little wishful thinking.

Vandeweghe had a tough match in ‘s-Hertogenbosch qualifying against Kristina Mladenovic, who also hits a big ball, but saved her best for last. Jie Zheng, Vandeweghe’s opponent in the final and former Wimbledon semifinalist, never saw a break point in the 70-minute, 6-2, 6-4 loss. Even more striking: She won exactly one point against Vandeweghe’s first serve in the entire match.

So what, if anything, do these command performances portend for Wimbledon? It’s hard to say, but the calculation has to include a number of factors, starting with the fact that the courts at these tune-up events play faster (and, more important, lower) than those at Wimbledon, where an enormous amount of capital has been plowed into soil to enable the grass courts to produce a high bounce—and thus play like the more rally-friendly clay and hard courts.

But also, the confidence dividend each woman reaped must be balanced against the physical as well as emotional fatigue they both now must manage. These are not players accustomed to the all-around stamina required by a winning streak, and the status of Wimbledon is such that both of them will feel a certain amount of pressure after their triumph—and face opponents who will be fully aware of how well each has been playing.

Garbine Muguruza, who was seeded No. 7 at ‘s-Hertogenbosch but beaten in straights sets by Vandeweghe, will get a rematch at SW19. The 20-year-old, who’s seeded No. 27 at Wimbledon, had a breakout tournament at the French Open, where she upset Serena and reached the quarterfinals. But don’t her Spanish-Venezuelan bloodlines fool you. She prefers hard courts, and her idols growing up were not Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Carlos Moya, but Serena and Pete Sampras.

Keys, who’s ranked No. 47, will meet Monica Puig, whose game she hasn’t solved in two previous meetings, including one a few weeks ago in Strasbourg, France. Keys has yet to win a set from Puig, but then the two losses were on clay, not the American’s preferred surface. The bottom line, though, is that both she and Vandeweghe have winnable matches at Wimbledon.

At this time last year, Vandeweghe was ranked outside the direct-entry ranks at No. 113. She’s made great strides, but she’s still streaky, and seems to be a much more dangerous player when expectations are low. That could be problematic at Wimbledon, where there will be eyes upon her.

Despite the difference in their ages, Keys already as an edge on Vandeweghe in one critical department—she’s more inclined to attack and seems more comfortable at the net. On Sunday, she ended up in the forecourt 19 times and won 14 of those chances. Her major shortcomings, if that’s the right word, are her age and her 5’10” frame.

But let’s remember that at 19, Keys is still undergoing seasoning, and her body resembles that proverbial lump of clay from which a mature adult is being formed right before our eyes. All in all, Keys is doing great. To surmount the twin hurdles of making a final and actually winning it on the same day, and so early in her career, are giant steps.

"It's one of those things where when you're training and you don't want to be there, you're tired or everything hurts, you think of this moment, and it really helps push you through all of the hard times,” she jubilantly declared on Sunday. “I'm just incredibly happy right now.”

All this might be enough to make U.S. fans link arms and join in a spirited chorus of the old martial ditty, “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along.”

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