PARIS—Madison Keys looked up at her player box, clenched and unclenched her right fist, and took the deepest of deep breaths. “Why,” she seemed to be asking herself, and her coach, Lindsay Davenport, “am I still out here?”
Good question. For the vast majority of the previous 75 minutes, Keys had been by far the better player in her third-round match against Naomi Osaka. Keys had won the first set 6-1. She had hit 30 winners to Osaka’s eight. She had served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and reached match point. She had been the bigger, smarter hitter, and the more polished mover. While Keys slid into her shots like a budding dirtballer—“clay is growing on me,” the American says—Osaka was constantly caught going the wrong way and spinning her wheels.
“I would make a push, and then, suddenly, I would be sort of tipping over or something,” said Osaka, who “didn’t feel comfortable moving on the clay today.”
Maybe that’s because, against most opponents, Osaka is the player in command, the player powering balls for winners, the player who has the match on her racquet for good or ill. But Keys took the initiative from her and forced her to play reactive tennis; faced with Keys’ missiles, it was all Osaka could do get her racquet around fast enough to meet the ball in front of her.
And yet here Osaka stood with set point in the second-set tiebreaker; and there Keys stood, staring up at her team, wondering how she had arrived at this stage. On the previous point, at 5-5, Keys had sailed a backhand well over the baseline and let out an ear-splitting scream that cracked up the crowd in Court Suzanne Lenglen.
At 6-5, set point for Osaka, the two engaged in one of the few extended rallies of the day. Both were nervous, both were tight, both were doing something they very rarely do: guiding the ball over the the net and safely inside the lines. Yet it was the most tension-filled point of the match. Keys, letting out an anxious squeak with every swing, kept the ball in play until Osaka finally couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled the trigger and drilled a forehand into the net. Two minutes later, Osaka double-faulted and Keys had the win that she could have had half an hour earlier.
“I think even serving at 5-4, I was actually, for the most part, happy with most of my shots,” Keys said. “I feel like I just missed some of them.”
“After that, it was just, OK, let me just focus on my game, make all the balls that I can. And then I felt like I had to just really balance making the ball when I didn’t have the right one, and then once I had the right one, going for it and still trusting my game.”
Keys and Osaka, in many ways, are a big-sister, little-sister tennis duo. Keys is 23, Osaka 20, and both honed their games in Florida. They also honed them the same way: Keys and Osaka both play one-gear tennis.
Through the first half of 2018, Osaka had nearly drawn even Keys by winning the title at Indian Wells, beating Serena Williams in Miami, and cracking the Top 20 for the first time. But this match showed that Keys remains in the lead; she’s the bigger hitter, and, at least on clay, the better mover. Still, Keys said she saw the improvement in Osaka.
“Even seeing how she raised her level in the second set was a lot different from the last time we played each other,” Keys said, “so you can tell she’s definitely getting better and better. So I think luckily I’m still a little bit older, so pulled out the veteran moves today.”
At her best, when she has the patience to hit a set-up shot before pulling the trigger, Keys gives us glimpses of a Slam-winning brand of tennis. If she could apply her power with consistency over the course of three sets, who could stay with her? Today she mostly made Osaka, one of the game’s brightest prospects, look ordinary. The problem is, Keys doesn’t always have the patience to hit a set-up shot; when she pulls the trigger at the first opportunity, bad things are more likely to happen.
Last fall, Keys strung her glimpses of brilliance together long enough to reach the US Open final, but she was all out of them once she made it there. Could she do something similar on clay, in Paris? If Jelena Ostapenko can win here with a grip-and-rip game, why can’t Keys?
“I’ve had good results on clay,” Keys said today. “I think it’s more my own mentality on clay...it’s finding that middle ground where I’m not playing a different way than I like playing tennis.”
In other words, whatever surface Keys plays on, the match will be on her racquet.
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