Dishing the Dirt

by: Steve Tignor | May 26, 2016

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Keys is playing power-clay tennis. How far can it take her in Paris? (AP)

How can you tell that Madison Keys is turning into a seasoned pro? The 21-year-old’s blink-and-you-missed-it 6-3, 6-2 win over veteran clay-courter Mariana Duque-Marino on Thursday at the French Open was certainly a sign of a young talent playing up to her potential. But it was what Keys did after the match that showed real grace under pressure.

As is always the case at pro events, when the winner walked off the court she was immediately bombarded with screeching demands from the children in the stands. They wanted photos, autographs, racquets, bags; whatever they could get their hands on. Keys obliged by tossing a Roland Garros towel—not too shabby as far as swag goes—in the direction of a pair of boys who were clamoring in the first row. 

Unfortunately, the towel landed between them, which started a violent tug of war for possession. When neither boy let go, the level-headed—and quick-thinking—Keys came to the rescue. She walked back to her bag, pulled out another towel and handed it to them. Tug of war over; now there was enough for everyone. With that problem solved, Keys turned to another teenager who was begging for a selfie and, without missing a beat, stuck out her tongue for the camera. Madison obviously knows what winning in the Millennial Age entails.

As of last month, though, it wasn’t clear exactly how much winning Keys was going to do in 2016. It had been a roller-coaster first three months of the year for her, with far more dips than peaks. Keys arrived at the Australian Open with a new coach in 28-year-old Jesse Levine, but soon suffered an adductor injury that kept her out for a month. When she returned, she briefly hired and fired Mats Wilander as a secondary adviser. Then she played so badly in Miami and Charleston that she went ahead and fired Levine, too.

Just when her season seemed to be spinning out of control, Keys made a stabilizing move. She hired veteran coach Thomas Hogstedt. The no-nonsense Swede had all of the experience and gravitas that the friendly Levine lacked. Keys, who shares an agent with Maria Sharapova, knew what Hogstedt could do for her. At the start of the decade, he helped take Sharapova back to the top of the rankings. Along the way, they accomplished something more surprising and seemingly much more difficult: Turning the clay-hating Russian into a French Open champion.

Can Hogstedt do the same thing for Keys, whose high-octane, low-percentage game would seem equally ill-suited to the demands of dirt? Most experts have pegged her as a future champion at Wimbledon, rather than Roland Garros. Both are obviously a long way off right now, but so far it seems that Keys has made the right hire. 

Since hooking up with Hogstedt, she has won two matches in Madrid, reached the biggest final of her career—and her first on red clay—in Rome and blitzed her way through the first two rounds in Paris. It’s the pro-tour version of a giant mood swing: After reaching a nadir in April, Keys is flying high again in May. Serena Williams, the woman who beat her in Rome, was so impressed that she told Keys during their handshake, “You’re going to be No. 1.”

“It feels so good, so good,” Keys said after beating No. 4 Garbiñe Muguruza to reach the Rome final. “I’m really, really happy. I’m just really happy that I’m kind of finding my form a little bit before the French Open.”

Keys says that, much to her surprise, she was helped by a spring trip to Australia for a Fed Cup tie on dirt.

“Everyone was thinking [it] was going to be terrible,” Keys said, “[but] we got tons of practice on red clay, and I don’t think many people get to have that, especially from the States.”

As for Hogstedt, he seems to have quickly zeroed in on a couple of obvious problem areas.

“I think the biggest thing is just returns and overall intensity,” Keys said when she was asked to talk about the Hogstedt effect. “Sometimes I have lapses of attention, and I can lose some points very quickly. I think that’s been a big thing for him. So if I feel myself slipping a little bit, I’m catching myself very quickly.”

Keys hasn’t had any slips, of the mental or the physical kind, so far in Paris. Her wins over Donna Vekic and Duque-Marino, by identical 6-3, 6-2 scores, have shown again how much more raw game she has than the run of the WTA mill, even on clay. Duque-Marino, from Colombia, should theoretically have been able to trouble Keys on the surface with her loopy ground strokes. But Keys, who hit 25 winners to her opponent's nine, took over the rallies from the first ball and won them with rifle shots from both wings. As she said, it started with her returns, which looked much improved on Thursday.

“Just some big hitting out here by Madison Keys,” the commentator doing the match for European TV said as the American raced to the finish line.

That pretty much summed it up.

Is “big hitting” enough to take Keys, who was just 3-3 at Roland Garros before this year, deep into the second week? Her draw makes it plausible. With Angelique Kerber’s first-round loss, Keys is the favorite to reach the quarterfinals. Next for her is Monica Puig; Puig eliminated Keys in Paris three years ago, but is currently ranked 53rd, 36 spots below the American. 

There’s a misconception about clay that says it rewards consistency more than power. The truth is, you need both. It takes a lot of oomph to hit the ball through the court on dirt; there’s a reason why Rafael Nadal, with his heavy topspin, has won the tournament nine times, while his fellow grinder, Lleyton Hewitt, never reached the final. On the WTA side, pace is more crucial still: The last three women’s champions in Paris have been Serena, Sharapova and Li Na, three of the hardest hitters of this era.

Does it take a French champ to know one? If Serena is right about Keys’ future ranking, it makes sense that she would challenge for a Roland Garros title someday. For now, it’s enough to know that she’s found her feet on this surface, and found her way into this season.

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