By Jane Voigt — Tennis With An Accent
I like power tennis. You know: that big serve, big forehand variety of tennis. It’s fast, furious and stuns my senses. That’s what I expected from the quarterfinal match Friday between Madison Keys and Elena Rybakina at The Western & Southern Open. However, it looked and played out quite differently, at least from the Rybakina side of the court.
“I knew she was a remarkable player,” Keys told fans about the Wimbledon champion on Stadium Court, immediately following her 6-2, 6-4 win.
Both women came into this quarterfinal primed to earn a berth in Saturday’s semifinals. It is a WTA 1000 tournament, of course. Each woman was probably hopeful that the other might take a couple wrong steps while piling up errors. Keys upset top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the third round, the American’s first victory over a World No. 1 player, while Rybakina won 56% of her return games in the opening three rounds.
Things went dark for the Wimbledon champ early in the match, whether due to Keys’ powerful serves and groundstokes, or shoddy footwork and second serves from Rybakina.
They had met only one time prior to Friday, the third round of Roland Garros 2022. That’s not a favorite surface for Keys – she’s been clear on that. It’s certainly not a favorite surface for Rybakina. Yet that match went the distance, ending in a tiebreak. Squeaky close.
Not so on Friday, until Keys tried to close the match at 5-2 in the second. What seemed like ghosts from her prior round against Swiatek haunted the American, when the Pole was out of the match at 0-5 in the second set, yet went on a roll, winning four games in a row.
“If you back off at all she [Rybakina] can dictate,” Keys told fans after her quarterfinal. “[I was] just trying to take advantage of any ball I could.”
Although the match ended at just a touch over an hour-and-a half, the opening game extended over 11 minutes. Rybakina struggled on serve. Eight deuces and four break points piled up before Keys smacked a cross-court forehand winner. Game two escalated the expectations of fans when Keys held to love, cementing the break at 2-0. She didn’t stop there.
Keys’ blowout gained momentum point by point. Rybakina couldn’t find her forehand, a key component to her game and won only 31% on second serves.
Keys’ year, though, has been a happy uphill ride.
“After starting off the year with a title in Adelaide and a deep run Australian Open, she hadn’t reached a quarterfinal since March,” Tennis.com reported. Her victory over world number Iga Swiatek Thursday in Mason gassed Keys’ engines.
The last time she had played Swiatek, in Indian Wells, she lost 6-1, 6-0.
But The Western & Southern Open is planted in America’s Heartland, the Midwest. Keys, a native of Illinois, likes the atmosphere here and the faster hardcourts.
“I wish every tournament could be here,” she added on court.
The door to the semifinal was flung wide open as seeds fell like wind-blown leaves during the week. Only Aryna Sabalenka (No. 6) remained of the top-10 seeded women heading into Saturday’s semifinals. Keys lost a tight three-setter to Petra Kvitova.
Back to Friday’s quarterfinal and the revival of Madison Keys this week:
The end of the first set gave fans a hint at what might transpire in the second set. Rybakina seemed to have relaxed. She was swinging out on shots and put Keys in compromised court positions. She built a bit of momentum and confidence, breaking Keys immediately to go up 2-0. Yet, the chance of gaining an edge vanished, as Keys broke back, casting doubt on the belief that Rybakina could recover.
Keys’ power, especially off her forehand, left Rybakina stymied. That power is famous. At the 2014 French Open Keys “recorded the fastest average groundstroke speed for men and women at 127km/h. It topped Novak Djokovic’s average speed of 124km/h, the fastest on the men’s side,” reported Women’s Tennis Blog.
Make no mistake, Keys won this quarterfinal, as opposed to her foe losing it. This is true even when considering the poorer performance from Rybakina. Sheer power guided Keys’ tactics, as her mind remained centered on each point. Relaxed and freely swinging, Rybakina was compromised time after time, never rising to the occasion.
Keys’ new coach Georgi Rumenov reminds her before each match that “there is no need to, there is no have to,” The New York Times reported from The Australian Open in January. “The message is that it is not about the implications of the expectation. It is all about the rally, the shot at hand.”
Yet Keys has struggled with staying present, adjusting her power, backing off when tactics would call for a slightly less aggressive stance. She has been obsessed about results, according to The New York Times, and has tried “to calm her anxiety” at night.
The change in attitude has sprinkled her season with favorable results. In 2021, she won 11 matches. She started 2022 with a title run in Adelaide and a berth in the semifinals in Melbourne, where she lost to the eventual champion Ashleigh Barty.
With the U.S. Open just around the corner, Keys is now on the list of players to watch in New York. She reached the final there in 2017, where she lost to her good friend Sloane Stephens. Given what we’ve seen over the past few months, there’s absolutely no reason to believe she can’t advance to that stage again. Oh, and perhaps lift her very first Grand Slam trophy.