NEW YORK—Tennis giveth and tennis taketh away. Both were on full display Friday afternoon in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Madison Keys battled back from 5-1 down in the third set to defeat Naomi Osaka, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3).
“From being down the whole time, I knew I could come back,” Keys said. “Once I got the break and once I got the amazing crowd behind me, I knew I could do it.”
For Osaka, just 18, this third-round defeat is arguably the biggest heartbreaker of her young career. The world No. 81 had nothing to lose—until she took a seemingly insurmountable double-break lead in the final set—while Keys, almost a veteran at just 21, had all the pressure on her side.
The No. 8 seed made her first move at 5-5 in the first set. Using her most obvious weapon, her serve, she inched ahead 6-5, and played a savvy game against her inexperienced opponent to pocket the pivotal break for 7-5. Keys won 88 percent of her first-serve points in the opening set.
Instead of letting up, the Japanese teenager remained unperturbed. Just like in her first-round match against CoCo Vandeweghe—in which she dropped the first set, 7-6 (4)—Osaka played like nothing had happened. Like Keys, her serve is also a weapon, but so is her composure. This week marked her third appearance in the third round of a Slam this season, having won her first main-draw major matches at the Australian and French Opens.
“I mean, I'm happy with the way I play at Slams because they're very important to me,” Osaka said after her second-round win over Ying-Ying Duan. “But I kind of wish I could transfer the feeling, like, to the other tournaments.”
In the second set, Keys took a 4-3 lead. Osaka refused to back down, while Keys, perhaps sensing the finish line, began to rush her shots. Osaka boldly took advantage of every chance that came her way and sealed the set 6-4 with her heavy brand of tennis that will surely be heard from in the future. As for Keys, her go-for-broke style saw her strike just nine winners in the second set, to go along with 17 unforced errors.
Riding a tidal wave of momentum, Osaka steamrolled Keys in the beginning of the third set and went ahead 5-1, putting the American on the brink of elimination. At 5-2, the Japanese teenager found herself serving for a spot in the fourth round.
All of a sudden, the pressure that had been on Keys the entire match was resting on Osaka’s shoulders. If was now Keys who had nothing to lose, and so she did what came naturally: She went for her shots, to great effect.
After losing her insurance break, Osaka served at 5-4, 30-all and set up a makable high forehand volley. She missed it badly, let out an earth-shattering shriek and saw her composure melt away. She now looked more like a petulant teenager—head down, shoes dragging—than a player on the verge of a career breakthrough. Everything she had ever trained for was at her fingertips, but instead, it slipped away catastrophically. The whole crowd, though cheering for Keys, could not miss that pain.
Osaka didn’t forget where she was entirely, though, and pulled herself together enough to hold serve for 6-all.
Moods, like momentum, are a fickle thing in tennis. Keys looked euphoric after digging out of a total disaster, and a tiebreak was an exciting chance. Osaka, meanwhile, was trying to save face and scrambling to right a sinking ship.
The upset of the day wouldn’t happen. Never in danger of losing the tiebreaker, Keys took control with big serves and winners. In the end, she hit 37 winners to Osaka’s 15, while their unforced errors—41 for Keys, 35 for Osaka—were much closer.
“It's been dramatic, though, hasn’t it?” Keys said. “I'll be OK with a non-dramatic match.”
Next up for Keys is Caroline Wozniacki, who is ranked just seven spots higher than Osaka. But as we saw today, rankings don’t dictate how a match will turn out, and the former U.S. Open finalist is on a bit of a roll. Unless Keys brings her best tennis from start to finish, expect more drama.