Certainly, Madison Keys and Kaia Kanepi have a penchant for streaky play. But the match these two played this evening at the BNP Paribas Open took that premise to new levels. Keys won it by the extreme score of 6-0, 7-5 – a 16-minute first set, followed by a second set that lasted nearly an hour. Keys won the first nine games, lost five in a row, then rallied to take the last four. “I really wanted this win and to have to come back from losing a bunch of games in a row is what I’m most proud of,” Keys told courtside interviewer Andrew Krasny.

At one point, Kanepi trailed 0-6, 0-3, ad out. Repeatedly, she sprayed the ball long and wide, often – but not always – forced into miscues by Keys’ mix of movement, depth, and power. In the first set, Kanepi won a scant four points. And yet, the score gap was so excessively wide that for Keys it was also potentially treacherous, a form of fool’s gold; for surely, at some point, the magic spell will wear off and the opponent will at last arrive.

Scraping herself off the ledge, Kanepi won that 0-3 game and subsequently faced another point to go down 4-1. She won that one too, then captured Keys’ serve and continued on a tear that saw her serve for the second set at 5-4, 30-love. The 30-15 point featured an impressive retrieval from Keys, a one-handed backhand slice crosscourt that elicited a netted backhand. But even once Keys had levelled the set at 5-all, Kanepi was not about to vanish. With Kanepi serving at 5-6, Keys reached love-40, only to see the 36-year-old Estonian erase all three match points. Only on the fourth was she at last able to close it out.

“I had to come up with some pretty good shots to get back on track,” said Keys. That she did, in those final four games regaining the crisp, disciplined footwork that had propelled her to such a commanding lead. The final point was a vivid example, Keys scampering all over the court to track down several forceful deep, hard drives.

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Keys led 6-0, 4-0, before finding herself down 4-5 in the second set.

Keys led 6-0, 4-0, before finding herself down 4-5 in the second set. 

It’s jarring to see a player of Madison Keys’ skills and accomplishments currently ranked only 50 in the world. This is someone who at 19 reached the semifinals of the 2015 Australian Open and two years later advance to the finals at the US Open. At her best, Keys’ exceptionally fluid service motion lets her take control of a great many rallies – and in turn, boosts Keys’ confidence when returning. In full flight, she can go toe-to-toe with anyone.

But it has been a frustrating 2021 for the 26-year-old Keys. It began with a positive test for COVID-19 that caused her to miss the Australian Open. Prior to this evening, Keys had gone 0-5 since Wimbledon. Just last week in Chicago, Keys retired in the second set of her opening match with a shoulder injury. Perhaps, here in the desert, Keys might regain the spark that I’ve always felt should make her a top ten mainstay. Tonight, having earned her first victory in nearly three months, she hopes so too. Said Keys, “It feels like it’s a new chapter.”