Before she walked on the court, in one of those pointless pre-match interviews on TV, Madison Keys was asked about her opponent’s strengths. The 14th-ranked Keys replied that Dominika Cibulkova was full of energy. It’s an obvious observation, the maximum these flat pre-match tunnel interviews can possibly get out of players. Just about any tennis fan who has seen the 35th-ranked Slovak play a match could tell you that much.
The real question, the one that was not asked, was how Keys would counteract that energy. The American is the opposite of a turbulent character on the court, sporting a mild disposition between points. Her high-power game is another story. It can cause all sorts of turbulence for opponents when clicking on all cylinders. It has the capacity to suck the energy out of a nuclear plant, let alone an opponent with a high-octane constitution. Unfortunately for Cibulkova, that is what mostly took place on Arthur Ashe for one hour and 15 minutes on Monday.
Keys drummed one winner after another (19 winners and 6 aces), never allowing Cibulkova to sink her teeth into the match in a way that gained traction. The one time the Slovak seemed to just do that (“seemed” being the key word), Madison responded harshly, winning the next four games and crossing the finish line for a squeaky clean 6-1, 6-3 victory.
Dominika’s energy, to which Keys was referring above, did appear drained more than once (for example, see her walk back to the baseline after missing the easy volley wide to go down 1-5 in the first set). That is because the American never relinquished the role of the one determining the outcome of points, rallies, patterns, and which way the momentum would swing. Hardcore Cibulkova fans may look for answers as to what their player could (“should” from their perspective) have done differently, because that is what most single-player fans do – for some reason, it’s painful for them to admit to the superiority of the opponent on that day. In reality, Cibulkova did not play a bad match at all; most of the errors she made were the result of the stifling pressure applied on her by Keys from the first game of the match to the last.
Here is a short, one-paragraph summary of the match. There were hardly any moments in the first set that Dominika could have played differently, and her momentary climb back into the second set was deceptive because it stemmed from a few misses by Keys, the only sequence of the match during which Keys put together a string of errors. Otherwise, Keys remained tuned in throughout the match, producing one spectacular shot after another. Keys has faced her share of criticism in matches when she does not show up at her best — that can lead to a multitude of errors on her part. Monday was not one of those days. Keys made 12 unforced errors total, only one from the baseline in the first set.**
**Having seen too many erroneous judgments on what constitutes an unforced error in the official stats, I do my own count of unforced errors.
Now, for those interested in more details, here is the story of the match.
Keys began the first game with two winners (one from each wing) and an ace, bringing us to the long second game that featured eight deuces and lasted almost 14 minutes. Madison’s down-the-line accelerations were causing havoc for Cibulkova – three of them, clean winners – but her errors on returns were keeping her opponent in the game. She made five return errors that I consider unforced errors, all in that game. That was the last time she made an unforced error for the rest of the set.
On the eighth deuce point, Keys nailed a forehand crosscourt winner and followed it up, on her fifth break-point opportunity, with a backhand crosscourt winner that Cibulkova helplessly watched four meters away as the ball passed by her.
Cibulkova fought hard in that game, showing the fierce spirit that has made her popular among tennis fans. For example, she made her first regrettable error of the match on the sixth deuce point when she missed (deep) a sitter forehand from the middle of the court. Down a break point, instead of getting apprehensive following that error, she zipped a terrific forehand winner to get back to deuce. The one blemish on her part, and that goes for the whole first set, was the double fault committed at 40-30, but keep in mind that she was tossing the ball directly into the sun at that point in time and probably thinking about how to avoid a bazooka return by Keys.
After 2-0, it must have felt like a blur to Cibulkova. Keys clicked on all cylinders, even after Cibulkova got on board on the fourth game of the set. In that game, Cibulkova won a contested point at 30-30 after Keys blew a couple of chances to put the ball away and followed it up with a solid down-the-line forehand winner to hold her serve. At that point, it felt like this was Cibulkova’s chance to settle into the match and look for an opportunity to recover the break.
Keys extinguished that glimmer of hope quickly when she hit a down-the-line forehand winner, a second forehand winner from the middle of the court, another stellar forehand to force her opponent into an error, and a 115-mile-per-hour first serve that Cibulkova could not return back in the court. Just like that, Keys reconfirmed the break and went up 4-1. Did I talk about Madison’s ability to drain the energy out of her opponents?
How tuned in was she? At times she nailed shots at such a high pace that they turned into winners not because Cibulkova could not run them down, but because she did not have enough time to react – see the return at 15-15, in the first game of the second set. Most players would have crumbled under that type of pressure, but Cibulkova, remarkably, kept her error count low until the late stages of the match, those coming only out of desperate acceleration attempts from difficult positions.
Madison’s only foot-off-the-pedal moment arrived at 2-0 up in the second set. At deuce, she committed her second “bad” error into the net on a short forehand sitter and missed a return in the net to lose the game. Then, 2-1 up and serving, Keys committed two forehand errors on shots that she had been routinely striking winners. She lost her serve. It was a lapse of concentration or simply the manifestation of the reality that not everything can go fairy-tale perfect for a whole match.
In any case, Cibulkova held her serve comfortably to go up 3-2, pointing to signs of a turnaround and leading most of us to believe that we now had a match in our hands. Credit to Cibulkova — she took advantage of the one opening the American gave her and put together three solid games, letting Keys accumulate the errors. Yet, as noted above, Keys never stopped being the one to carve out the ebbs and flows of this match. Knowing that and having found an opportunity to sink her teeth into the match, Cibulkova attempted to take charge in the sixth game by getting aggressive on returns. It did not work as she made errors on returns, partially because of the wicked, high-jumping kick on Madison’s second serves (see the 15-0 point of that game).
Four points later, it was 3-3 and the Keys train was again operating at full force, bringing Cibulkova quickly to the last stop of the short ride. From 2-3 down, Keys won the next 12 points and 19 out of the next 24 before shaking Cibulkova’s hand at the net.
Cibulkova should not feel disappointed about her showing at the U.S. Open. She defeated three opponents in three sets each, the last one being Angelique Kerber, a genuinely elite WTA player. She lost only because she crashed into an opponent deeply feared by the rest of the WTA, provided that she can reproduce the quality of her output on Monday.
Keys, for her part, has the advantage of playing in the one Slam she likes the most, and the only one where she tasted the thrill of playing a final. She will look for that same goal, and more, again when she steps on the court to face the winner of Maria Sharapova and Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals.