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Tennis

Madison Keys Makes The Most Of Low Expectations

3:29 PM EDT on September 7, 2023

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 06: Madison Keys of the United States celebrates defeating Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the quarter-final on Day 10 of the US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 06, 2023 in New York City (Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images)
Robert Prange/Getty Images

The spatial dynamic of Madison Keys's 6-1, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Marketa Vondrousova on Wednesday was brutally simple: Keys moved forward on her terms, forcing Vondrousova to flail and lunge backward. There was more to it than pure power, but Keys's control over the middle of the court never wavered. After a five-year absence, she's back in the U.S. Open semifinals.

Stats alone rarely tell the story of a match, but it's hard not to gawk at the break point numbers. Vondrousova earned nine chances to break Keys's serve; she won zero. Keys had three break points and tidily won each of them. Whenever Vondrousova put her into a tight spot, Keys got out of it. In the very first game, she built a 40-love advantage only for Vondrousova to claw out a break point, which Keys saved. Play stopped for eight minutes after a fan passed out, forcing Keys to sit in the soupy air and dwell on how her opponent had just won four points in a row on her serve.

Then she held serve, broke Vondrousova in four points, and won the first set without ever wobbling again. Everything was hard; everything was accurate. When Vondrousova couldn't tempt Keys to the net, points tended to end with the Czech sprinting at a ball 10 feet behind her.

Vondrousova was visibly diminished by an elbow injury in the first set, though she seemed to find her missing pace in the second. Her serve finally started moving Keys out of position, and both players held through the first seven games until Vondrousova made her move. She backed Keys into a corner at 15-40, which began a match-defining sequence: Keys clobbered an inch-perfect forehand bomb to the corner, then slapped a forehand past a wayward Vondrousova for deuce; Vondrousova earned the third and fourth break points of the game by prolonging exchanges long enough to draw Keys toward the net; Keys punched an even more ambitious winner down to the opposite corner, only to gift the Czech a fifth break point by duffing an easy smash; Keys finally won one at the net before slamming the door shut with a backhand bullet. Vondrousova poured all her remaining vitality into that game, and Keys stood up to it.

"I think I just find another gear when it comes to Slams," Keys said after the match. "Part of it is that I put a little bit more pressure on myself, which is a good thing and also a bad thing sometimes." Mostly, it's been a good thing. Keys came into this tournament ranked 17th, on the heels of a trio of disappointing U.S. Open runs. She's been loving the lack of press attention, as it has allowed her to avoid the burden of expectations. Keys seems to be playing with real freedom, happily letting that killer serve rip (she hit 119 mph last night) and punishing opponents with brutal winners. One match before taking down Vondrousova, the defending Wimbledon champion, Keys smoked No. 3 seed Jessica Pegula in 61 minutes. She's only dropped one set so far at the tournament.

After the match, Rennae Stubbs asked Keys in an on-court interview about the advice that her coach and fiancée, fellow pro Bjorn Fratangelo, gave her on avoiding Vondrousova's chipped returns. "To be honest, I couldn’t hear shit out here tonight," she replied.

The crowd will be even louder on Thursday night when she takes on Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals. It'll be a different kind of pressure: Due to the matchup, Keys admitted that "it's going to be a lot of hard hitting, not a lot of long points." In their last meeting, Sabalenka won in straight sets at Wimbledon earlier this summer, but Keys has been hitting clean in New York. "Bjorn has been wanting me to go after [my serves] more, so he said if I hit a 121 mph serve, I get anything I want," she joked. If she can get her serve anywhere close, maybe she'll get another appearance in the finals.

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