In truth, the WTA Tour locker room was inspired by many events from the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. Svetlana Kuznetsova was inspiring. So was Sofia Kenin. Ashleigh Barty won more respect. Yet, Madison Keys’ story as the Cincinnati champion is probably the most resonant.
(I will listen to arguments for Kuznetsova, who can make a strong case.)
The point worth absorbing after Keys defeated Kuznetsova for this Premier 5 championship is that it showed not only that a player can go through prolonged struggles and then find the right answers; it showed that a player with a volatile game can find steadiness and resilience.
That point is readily obvious to some, but it deserves to be unpacked in fuller detail so that its message becomes clear to everyone.
Naturally, any struggling player suddenly finding the “on” switch — an epiphany akin to what Karolina Pliskova experienced in the late summer of 2016, beginning (interestingly enough) in Cincinnati — is inspiring to players in the locker room. Many of them can say to themselves, LEGITIMATELY and REALISTICALLY, that they can find their best tennis after misplacing it for months.
That’s a very big deal.
Yet, with Madison Keys, it’s more than that.
Keys didn’t merely struggle; she struggled after a coaching change, as many other WTA players have done this year. (Hello, Sloane Stephens and Angelique Kerber, among others!) She struggled at a point in her career (her mid-20s) when a top player is supposed to cement herself in the highest tier of the sport — not necessarily winning major titles, but regularly being in the hunt at important tournaments.
There is even more to this particular story.
Keys isn’t just a player who has had to deal with a coaching change. She isn’t just a player who is in her mid-20s and trying to figure out a formula for consistency. She is also the owner of one of the biggest games on tour.
Very few tennis players — on either tour — hit a bigger ball than Madison Keys does. There is a special burden attached to tennis players who can hit especially big. They can see and know how much firepower they possess, which plants the seed in their mind that they have to control that power.
The need to control shots becomes such an obvious and central part of their everyday reality that these big hitters press and lose focus. The big hitter’s challenge is to harness not just power, but the brain. The inner voice in the head can’t be omnipresent. It has to be quieted so that the mind can be clear enough and calm enough to simply hit the ball squarely, time and time again.
The big hitters on either tour have to clear their minds not only to hit cleanly, but to also fight completely. The focus on hitting a ball squarely can become so consuming that as soon as the shots spray into the doubles alleys or well beyond the baseline, the competitive instinct fades away.
This is what has happened to Keys so often this year… until Cincinnati.
It’s not as though Keys played squeaky-clean matches from start to finish. Especially against Simona Halep but also against Kuznetsova and versus Kenin, Keys went through bad patches.
The big problem with Keys is that one really awful error in an important moment can easily bleed into the next 8 to 10 points. She often fails to contain damage and immediately reset her mind for the next point she has to play.
In Cincinnati, the reset button was used… and used expertly.
Keys battled back from 5-3 deficits in both sets of Sunday’s final against Kuznetsova. The pre-Cincy Keys in 2019 would have donated a few errors in Kuznetsova’s 5-4 service games. This version of Keys became sharper and more focused, hitting a running forehand winner down the line to change the equation in each of the 5-4 games in which she broke Sveta to tie a set at 5-5.
A resilient Madison Keys is the best Madison Keys. A big hitter found the coping skills and resilience, not just the calmer focus, needed to win a Premier 5 title and completely change the arc of her season entering the U.S. Open.
For older big hitters such as Camila Giorgi or younger big hitters such as Dayana Yastremska and Anett Kontaveit, Madison Keys could be the precise example they needed for their futures.
Plenty of veterans probably gravitated to Kuznetsova’s magical week as their inspiration — I wouldn’t doubt that at all — but in terms of playing style, a lot of WTA players surely looked at what Madison Keys achieved in Ohio and realized that their struggles don’t have to persist.
That is a very empowering message. We will see what happens in New York.