Keys was firing on all cylinders in rout over Cibulkova at US Open

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WATCH—Lindsay Davenport 1998 US Open: 

NEW YORK—There are players who can hit the ball past their opponents by aiming for one corner or another. There are others who can create an opening with one shot, and put the ball away with the next one. Then there are the players who can hit winners by going straight down the middle of the court.

Actually, there’s only one player who can do that on a semi-regular basis: Madison Keys. More than once in her 6-1, 6-3 fourth-round win over Dominika Cibulkova on Monday, Keys sent a return of serve back down the center and into the back wall before Cibulkova had even completed her service motion. Domi saw the ball coming, but all she could do was wave at it helplessly as it blazed by her.

This is the blessing, and occasionally the curse, of being Madison Keys. If you can hit winners at will, without even aiming the ball, why wouldn’t you try to hit one on every shot? Keys’ ground strokes are tennis’ version of the three-point shot in basketball: High risk, high reward.

Over the years, the three-pointer has gone from a shot that was used sparingly and judiciously, to one that is now used constantly—analytics have suggested that, in the long run, the risk is worth the reward, and all the misses are worth the extra point you earn from the makes. Watching Keys against Cibulkova, I wondered what tennis analytics would tell us about how much risk she should take on any given stroke. Should she, as virtually everyone says, dial back the power and rally more? Or is she more effective just going for it, and accepting the errors that come with the winners?

​(Anita Aguilar)

If her match on Monday is any example, Keys should probably start out playing it a little safe, see how she feels, and try to find a groove naturally. In the early going against Cibulkova, Keys kicked her serve in, varied the pace on her ground strokes, and kept the ball in play for a few shots before pulling the trigger.

Or, as Patrick McEnroe said after one bullet forehand, “It didn’t look like she was going that big, and then boom!”

By the end of the first set, Keys seemed to have decided that she was feeling good enough to let the ball fly. She had owned Cibulkova in the past, having won all four of their previous meetings—basically, the 5’3” Domi tries to do what the 5’10” Maddy does with much less effort: Tear the cover off the ball. Outside of a brief, two-game hiccup in the second set, that’s what Keys did. When she wasn’t hitting her shots past Cibulkova, she was putting them right at her feet. Keys ended up with 25 winners to just seven from Cibulkova. And she did all of that while making just 57 percent of her first serves.

If there’s one thing that would be a game-changer for Keys it would probably be developing a defensive slice backhand. Too often, when a player goes big into her backhand side, her only option is to try to go bigger in return. For today, power was enough, but will be enough to take her all the way to her first major title? Keys is the highest seed left in the bottom half, and after today she has to be the favorite to reach her second straight Open final.

​(Anita Aguilar)

Afterward, Keys was asked how she was able to bounce back so quickly from that two-game skid in the second set—at one stage down the stretch, the American won 12 straight points.

“If it gets a little bit tighter,” Keys said, “you think, ‘Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t try to hit a winner on the first shot.’”

The answer for most players is to wait to pull the trigger. For Keys, that might or might not be the best strategy. Knowing what she can do with the ball makes finding the right balance more difficult. She found it today; now we’ll see how long she can keep it.

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