Keys, Muguruza, Azarenka head to red clay with a lot of confidence

Keys, Muguruza, Azarenka head to red clay with a lot of confidence

The 24-year-old American and the 25-year-old Spaniard both ended long title droughts in places that feel like home to them.

From their shots, to their grins, to their words, to their winning results, Madison Keys and Garbiñe Muguruza looked and sounded like tennis-playing twins on Sunday.

“It’s definitely been a really great week for me,” a beaming Keys said after her 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston.

“I’m really happy this week,” an equally pleased Muguruza said after her 6-1, 3-1 ret. win over Victoria Azarenka in the Monterrey final a few hours later.

The parallels didn’t stop there, as the American and the Spaniard both ended long title droughts in places that feel like home to them.

“I’ve always loved Charleston,” said Keys, who reached the final there in 2015. “It’s always been one of my favorite tournaments, so now to be able to say that I’ve won the tournament and be on the trophy is really, really special.”

“I’m loving Monterrey a lot, and the crowd is supporting me all the time,” said Muguruza, who also won this event in 2018. “It’s a great feeling to come back and defend a title. It’s never easy.”

Keys and Muguruza both know that winning any title isn’t easy; Muguruza ended a 12-month drought with her victory, while Keys won her first tournament since Stanford in 2017, and reached her first final since that year’s US Open.

Now that they’re back on the board, the question becomes: Can these two powerful but notoriously inconsistent players use these titles as springboards to better clay-court seasons? Can they win in places that don’t feel quite as much like home? A French Open title is not out of the question for either woman. Muguruza won in Paris in 2016, while Keys reached the semifinals last year. And neither of their titles last week felt like flukes.

In Charleston, Keys beat another Roland Garros champion in Jelena Ostapenko, a US Open champion in Sloane Stephens, and an Australian Open champion in Wozniacki. In Monterrey, Muguruza recorded quality wins over Azarenka, Magdalena Rybarikova, and Kiki Mladenovic.

But as the relative prominence of those names indicates, it was Keys who had the more impressive and promising run. Her wins over Wozniacki and Stephens in particular felt like breakthroughs; before Charleston, Keys was a combined 0-10 in sets against them. Neither matchup favored Keys, especially on clay; she wasn’t steady enough to stay with those two road-runners from the baseline, and she didn’t seem to have the instincts to do what she needed to do to beat them: Move forward and close out points at the net. This time, though, Keys kept an important idea in mind when she faced them: “intention.”

“Remember what we said in practice,” Keys’ coach, Juan Todero, reminded her during his sideline visit in the final. “Play with intention.”

Is this the magic word for Keys? Her power game has always been something of a puzzle: It’s unstoppable when her shots are clicking, but when they’re not, she has a hard time dialing back and finding a more consistent middle ground. That word, intention, would seem to strike the right, measured note: It keeps you thinking offensively, without tempting you to try to win the point with one stroke. Keys hit 30 winners in the final, and made just 21 errors; that’s a winning ratio for her on just about any day.

“I’m not sure she would have believed this was possible a week ago,” said Tennis Channel commentator and former Keys coach Lindsay Davenport. Probably not: Keys lost her opening matches in Indian Wells and Miami, and was on the verge of losing her opener in Charleston to Tatjana Maria. But she had been happy with her practice sessions with Todero, and part of her must have known that she would flip the switch eventually.

“To be able to really bounce back and have a really good week of training with my coach, Nacho [Todero], and then be able to come and win the tournament, it definitely is a very good springboard for heading over to Europe,” Keys said.

This was a weekend of potential springboards, by Keys, Muguruza, and the woman Muguruza beat in the Monterrey final, Azarenka. While Vika had to retire on Sunday with a leg issue, her win the previous day over Angelique Kerber felt like old times—the force, of Azarenka’s personality and of her shots, finally seemed to have returned.

All three women should head to Europe with more confidence than they had a week ago. But it’s the 24-year-old Keys, more than just about any other player on the WTA tour, who is due for a Slam-winning run this season. We’ll see how far her good intentions can take her.