MELBOURNE, Australia – If American Madison Keys wasn’t often mentioned among the major contenders for the Australian Open women’s singles title, it was an error of omission, not commission.
The 22-year-old US Open finalist should be in the conversation for every Grand Slam on the basis of her talent and resumé. But she’s basically been MIA since that day at Flushing Meadows last September when she was beaten by her friend Sloane Stephens in the all-American final.
Keys has returned for 2018 looking in tip-top physical shape and, most importantly, with a healthy left wrist.
And with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 8 seed Caroline Garcia of France Monday, the No. 17 seed is in the quarterfinals.
Were she in the bottom half of the draw, you’d have to make Keys a favorite. But she’s in the loaded upper half.
Loaded bottom half
Only one of Keys, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova (the latter two if they win later Monday) will be an Australian Open finalist.
The American played just one match the rest of the way after that US Open effort – a loss to countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko in Wuhan, China 10 days later.
She began the 2017 season late after having wrist surgery in October, 2016, after making the WTA Tour Finals. And she missed last year’s Australian Open.
Keys then had a second procedure to remove scar tissue shortly after losing early at the French Open. And in Wuhan, she felt pain in that wrist again. So she took the time to get it right.’
“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court, and I obviously missed a lot of tennis last year and wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the year,” Keys said.
“I realized once I just let things happen and trusted myself and just played my game, good things were happening and good outcomes were happening. So I just keep focusing on that and not putting as much pressure on myself.”
Good draw in Melbourne
Keys lost in the first round of Brisbane to open the season, a three-set loss to the equally rusty Johanna Konta. She’s had a very manageable draw so far in Melbourne – and she didn’t have to play Konta, her scheduled third-round opponent, after the British No. 1 lost early.
But the performance against Garcia was good enough to set off the bells even if Garcia thought she missed the boat on this one.
“I don’t think she was unplayable. Nobody is unplayable. She did a good performance, but mine was below what I can do – what I must do to beat her,” Garcia said during her French-language media conference. “My serve wasn’t up to it. Against a girl like that, I didn’t make enough first serves. I couldn’t play my game. All my matches since the beginning of the tournament were pretty average.”
The loss in the US Open final was a tough one to get over. Keys was helped by running into Kim Clijsters almost immediately after leaving the court. Clijster can relate absolutely; she didn’t win her first Grand Slam title until her fifth title.
Her own coach, Lindsay Davenport, had some of that experience as well when she played. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and Keys’s curve is getting steeper the closer she gets to the top.
“Obviously making a first week for the first time, everything is very overwhelming. I feel like being more consistent about making second weeks and having runs has helped me manage the moment. But more than anything, it’s just focusing on the match in front of me and not thinking about, oh, I could make the final. It’s more I have a quarterfinal and that’s what I need to focus on and not look past that,” she said. “The more I have been in the situation, the better I have become at doing that and not looking at the draw and doing all of that.”
Davenport advice well-followed
If you’ve ever watched the on-court coaching consults with Davenport permitted during the regular WTA Tour events, you’ve noted a common refrain.
Davenport is always telling her to stay in the point, not pull the trigger too early, and wait for the right ball to pounce on with all of her power.
Keys has been listening.
“I’m feeling really good. I feel like I’m playing just solid, consistent tennis. And I think today was a good example of that. I think I served well. I think I returned well. But I don’t think I played unbelievable. I think I just played really solid and smart,” she said. “And I wasn’t going for unbelievable shots and things like that. I just was waiting for the right ball. Then trusting that I was going to make the right decision when I finally had the opportunity to go for it.”
Next up for Keys is Kerber, who survived a frustrating, scream-inducing three-setter against the unique and uniquely enjoyable Hsieh Su-Wei of Taipei.
Hsieh had a nice run at the French Open a year ago and got a lot of attention with her French cheering section (she lives in Paris with her French boyfriend) and her ever-present smile as she dissected her opponents on the red clay.
Shealso has been ranked No. 1 in doubles and has won Grand Slam titles.
Near-exit turns into nice run
After losing the first set of her first-round match 0-6 and going on to win 8-6 in the third, the 32-year-old upset Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round and Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, before meeting Kerber.
Hsieh’s game – all angles and drop volleys and unexpected on-the-rise, flat groundstrokes – is relatively easier to execute against a bigger hitter who might not move as well or handle the off-pace shots as deftly.
Against Radwanska, and then Kerber Monday, it’s a challenging, energy-consuming exercise because of the increased number of balls the opponent will get back. By the middle of the second set, blowing her nose on changeovers, the needle on Hsieh’s tank began heading towards empty.
A year ago, Kerber might have shuttled herself right out of the tournament the way she was playing. A year later, she dug in and kept the intensity up to finally pull it out.
Keys v Kerber a Kolossal Klash
The German is 6-1 against Keys, much of that record produced against the “old” Keys, the one who wouldn’t stay in many rallies long enough to impose her game. That record includes victories at the 2013 Australian Open, the 2016 Olympics in Rio and and WTA Finals in Singapore at the end of that season.
Now, against a Keys with a healthy wrist, a Keys who’s really enjoying her job right now, the story may be quite different.
Then again, after a year that felt like a season-long hangover from her breakthrough exploits in 2016, that last part may be true of Kerber as well