Madison Keys got ahead of herself in a rollercoaster defeat to Rodina

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At one point, Madison Keys lost nine straight games to the 120th-ranked player in the world, Evgeniya Rodina. (Getty Images)

It seems that Madison Keys and I were on similar wavelengths on Friday.

Watching her go up 5-2 in the first set against 120th-ranked Evgeniya Rodina, I was struck by how easy she was making everything look, and how calm and composed she appeared to be as she walked to the sideline.

My next thought was, “Madison Keys is going to win Wimbledon.”

It wasn’t a crazy thought, or a laughable thought; it was, I believed at the time, a rational thought. Six of the Top 8 seeds in the women’s draw were already out. Someone had to win the tournament, so why shouldn’t it be Keys? We’ve been saying for years that she’s a future Wimbledon champion. Wasn’t this the moment that U.S. tennis fans had been waiting for?

Apparently, and unfortunately for her, Keys was also thinking ahead while she walked to the sideline at 5-2. She wasn’t thinking of winning the tournament necessarily. But she was, she said later, thinking about her potential fourth-round match on Manic Monday, in which her opponent could very well have been Serena Williams. The winner of that match would likely have been favored to win the whole tournament.

WATCH—Match point from Rodina's win over Keys at Wimbledon: 

But none of that will come to pass now, because Keys let that 5-2 lead slip, lost the first set 7-5, and eventually lost the match to the 29-year-old Russian qualifier, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. To describe this contest as a “roller coaster” hardly does justice to its stupefyingly vertiginous ups and downs. Rodina led 7-5, 4-0, and had three break points to go up 5-0. Keys saved them all and won seven of the next eight games to level the match at one-set all. The same pattern held in the third set. Rodina went up 3-1, and Keys came back for 4-4. But this time it the Russian who closed.

According to Keys, the match was “a case of massive, mishandled nerves.”

She said that after the score unexpectedly tightened up in the first set, she got nervous, and struggled to shake those nerves and regain her concentration. The result, especially coming after her encouraging run to the French Open semifinals last month, has to be one of her most disappointing defeats. Rodina scrapped and scrambled and competed well, and she overcame a leg injury in the third set. But this was a match that was on Keys’ racquet.

Why did she lose it? People in tennis talk a lot about how she’s sure to win a major someday; that no one can match her power when she’s on. So what’s holding her back? Everyone, it seems, has a different answer.

Keys said before the tounament that, rather than going for everything on every shot, she needs to be intelligently aggressive. She and Aussie coach David Taylor have been working on making sure that she’s committed to every stroke and using one of her strengths, her racquet-head acceleration, to her advantage. That makes sense: It’s one of the strange facts of the sport that a fast racquet doesn’t just give you pace, it gives you safety, too.

After her loss today, Keys said that she also needs to have a psychological Plan B for those moments when she gets nervous and loses concentration. She needs to learn to find her game again on the fly.

In the commentary booth, Rennae Stubbs pointed to Keys’ return miss on match point—she went for a big forehand on a cream-puff serve and drilled it into the net—as an example of not playing the score correctly. Rodina was bound to be nervous trying to close it out, so in that situation you want to make her play at least one ground stroke. Instead, Keys tried to pummel the ball past her.

Maybe it’s a question of how to address Keys’ fundamental issue: her inconsistency. If a rally lasts 10 shots or more, she’ll usually be the player who commits an error. So do you try to make her steadier, or do you encourage her to end points as quickly as she can, because she’s never going to be someone who wins by grinding them out?

Keys was born with superpowers in her right arm. She has gradually learned to harness them; it’s easy to forget on disappointing days like this that she’s reached the semis of three of the majors, and the final of the US Open. It’s also easy to forget that this woman we’ve been watching since she was 14 is still just 23 years old. She’ll still have her superpowers, and there will plenty of Grand Slams to try to win.

Chalk up today as another lesson learned: don’t get ahead of yourself. It won’t be the last one Keys has to learn.

Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.


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