Briana Foust

It’s hard to believe that Madison Keys is still only 23 years old… and that yet next year will be the tenth anniversary of her devotion to tennis.

The young American who became a professional athlete at the precocious age of 14 has been on the radar as the next major champion for the stars and stripes for years. That is an incredibly impressive feat in an era when the WTA has purposefully limited the number of professional events that can be played by players under the age of 18. Many don’t remember this now, but Venus and Serena hastily turned professional in the mid-1990s in order to escape such limitations on their early careers. The WTA age eligibility rule was introduced to protect young athletes from parents who could take advantage of a prodigy’s ability to be a breadwinner. The rule was designed to avoid burnout from the rigors of the tour. Keys, similar to the Williams sisters, did not play many junior tennis events because she was already playing on the WTA Tour.Osaka’s career, on the other hand, has been more typical of modern prodigies. She has only been a professional since 2013, but in 2018 Osaka has blossomed, reaching new heights after shocking the world to win her first WTA Tour title at Indian Wells. A fun trivia fact from that title run was that it was one of the first trophies she had ever won in her LIFE, let alone her tennis career. Before linking up with her current coach, Osaka’s level of play could be hot or cold depending on her mood with not much room for an “in-between.” Her streakiness was featured in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open, where Osaka and Keys played a tight match many heralded as a preview of slam finals in the future.

Keys on that match:

“I think the first time we played was U.S. Open, and I think that’s just a match that, you know, I was lucky to be able to scrape through that. But even seeing how she raised her level in the second set was, you know, a lot different from the last time we played each other, so you can tell that she’s definitely getting better and better and making smarter decisions. So I think luckily I’m still a little bit older, so pulled out the veteran moves today.”  

Keys and Osaka are framed as having similarly powerful games, but there are subtle differences both could learn from the other. Osaka is an artist of a powerful game laced with precision and angles, while Keys depends on high-octane strokes that are linear in nature, similar to her mentor Lindsay Davenport.

In their Roland Garros meeting on Friday, though, Keys defended well from the back of the court and used patience to her advantage. Those are the skills that took Naomi Osaka from a rising star to a Premier Mandatory champion. Will they have the same effect on Keys, who is searching for her first major on a surface that has newly embraced various power hitters in the last decade? Only time will tell, but know this: Keys wants it all.      

After defeating Osaka, who is three years her junior, Keys did indeed sound like a veteran of a 20-year career. She gave high praise to Naomi’s general attitude and ability to compete when down in the scoreline. Keys was up a set and a break in the second before Osaka broke her at 5-4 to even the match and then force a tiebreak. In that breaker, Osaka held a 4-1 lead and later set points before Keys turned the tide.

Osaka, in a change for herself, did not feel deflated by the blown lead. Instead she said, “I just thought to myself that, even if I lose, I don’t want to have any regrets or anything, and I want to try to keep fighting until the last point. I feel like there was a moment where maybe the me from before, the younger me, would have just accepted that I was losing. But now I’m not sad, because normally I would be very sad at this point. But I’m just looking forward to the next tournaments and the next matches I can play, because I feel like this match taught me a lot.”

These young women are learning to trust the process and may they reap the rewards they sow.

Image source – Jimmie 48

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