If you watch a tennis match as a fan of either player on the court, you tend to fear that your player is going to mess up every single shot. It doesn't matter how good he or she is; the fear of disaster with each swing is ever-present and ever-nauseating.
A Roger Federer fan fears that Federer is going to miss every first serve; a Rafael Nadal fan fears that Nadal is going to hit every forehand long; a Novak Djokovic fan fears that Djokovic is going to net every backhand. And when these GOAT candidates actually make good on the shot, which elementary logic should tell us they will do more often than not, the fans feel an inexplicable sense of relief.
With Madison Keys, you don't even have to be a fan to fear that she is going to miss a shot. The fear is specific to one particular shot: the forehand she strikes after being pulled wide. Almost every time she sets up to hit that shot, you are tempted to close your eyes and avoid seeing the inevitable missile that goes hurtling…into the bottom of the net.
And yet on Sunday, with the biggest title of her career on the line in Cincinnati, Keys managed to find two crucial forehands just in the nick of time to turn the tables on her opponent.
The first came with Svetlana Kuznetsova serving for the first set at 5-4. At 15-15 the Russian hit a heavy crosscourt forehand that took Keys well outside the court, and most of us thought the point was over right there. But Keys somehow got there in time and unleashed a monstrous down-the-line forehand that Kuznetsova had no hope of reaching.
The second came with Kuznetsova serving at 5-4 again, but this time in the second set. At 15-30 she put Keys on the run with a forceful inside-in forehand, and we expected the American to come up with a weak reply. But we should have known better after what had happened half an hour ago.
Keys took a couple of steps to her right and wrong-footed Kuznetsova with another searing down-the-line forehand. It didn't even have to be close to the lines this time; the Russian was so sure there would be a crosscourt reply that she didn't even bother moving for the change-up.
The first forehand gave Keys a 15-30 lead, the second gave her 15-40. She ended up breaking Kuznetsova both times and went on to steal the set on each occasion. What should have been a straight-sets win for the Russian turned instead into a straight-sets win for Keys.
"Honestly, I didn't expect to be so good at this tournament," Keys said after her win. Honestly, we didn't expect her to be so good either.
The 24-year-old had arrived in Cincinnati on the back of a three-match losing streak and wasn't even considered a dark horse. Her draw had done her no favours either: she was slated to face Garbine Muguruza in the first round, with a potential matchup against reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the third round.
She was on the brink of defeat against both of them but escaped in three sets each time. She also beat Daria Kasatkina, Venus Williams and Sofia Kenin – all in straight sets – on her way to the final. That's as strong a lineup of opponents as you can get on the chaotic women's tour, and yet Keys always looked like she would emerge triumphant – if only she could tame her gargantuan groundstrokes.
That word – tame – has frequently dogged Keys' career. Her game has never been in question; right from the time she first burst on to the scene as a 17-year-old, her big serve and forehand have been expected to create tsunami-like waves in the tennis world. But Keys has frequently struggled to tame her wild power, which explains why she's had to wait this long for her first Premier 5 or higher title.
Keys can easily litter the stat sheet with winners, but not quite in the manner of timing-reliant, on-the-rise shot-makers like Petra Kvitova and Jelena Ostapenko. Keys is more in the Karolina Pliskova mould and uses brute force to gain the upper hand in rallies. She is physically so imposing that she can overpower virtually every single one of her opponents without needing to red-line her game, and without needing to aim for razor-sharp precision.
That, as the American has discovered, is a double-edged sword. While she doesn't have days where things go spectacularly wrong due to slight breaks in rhythm, she does have a lot of trouble dialling down her power and keeping the ball in the court. Her routine groundstrokes can fly out or sink into the net if she doesn't take the effort to put extra shape on them.
That is why her matches – and career as a whole – have always had a start-stop quality.
Keys' forehand makes for a fascinating case study in this regard. If left unshackled, it would probably supersede every other forehand in the world right now. But forced to play within the rules and lines of the game, it frequently comes unstuck.
— WTA (@WTA) August 18, 2019
This week in Cincinnati, Keys didn't magically eliminate the errors and turn her forehand into a flawless shot. But she did keep it under control long enough for the rest of her game – her serve and backhand are nothing to sneeze at – to keep hacking away at the target. And when she really needed the forehand to stand up, like on those points at 15-15 and 15-30 against Kuznetsova, she somehow managed to come up with the goods.
The tightrope nature of Keys' Cincinnati win suggests that she isn't guaranteed to become a more consistent player overnight. She has had such breakthroughs before – the 2015 Australian Open and the 2017 US Open immediately come to mind. And after both of those runs, she was brought down to earth by a simple matter of being unable to control her natural gifts, coupled with her almost constant battle with injuries.
But what Keys still has going for her is that she is a big-match player. There's a reason she has been in the news for so long despite never having won a tier-I title – she almost always shows up when the stakes are high.
The nature of the sport is such that if you keep bringing your best to the big stage, things are bound to fall in place sooner or later. That's particularly true if you are equipped with the kind of gifts that Keys has; you only need to look at players like Stan Wawrinka, Samantha Stosur, Li Na or Marin Cilic to know that a big game always has a chance to produce a Slam out of nowhere.
Fortunately for Keys, she isn't 'nowhere' right now. She has won two titles this year, is back into the top 10, and is about to enter a tournament (the US Open) where she has made at least the semi-finals the last two years.
The best news of all? Her forehand doesn't look like it will end up at the bottom of the net every single time. If nothing else, at least her fans can watch her matches in peace right now.
Updated Date: Aug 19, 2019 08:47:30 IST