Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, our retrospective heads to the Eternal City to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Internazionale BNL d’Italia. The pick of 2016’s matches is Madison Keys’ fine quarterfinal victory over Barbora Strycova.
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HOW THEY GOT THERE: The beginning of 2016 had been challenging for Madison Keys. A run to the fourth round of the Australian Open had been hampered by a leg injury that subsequently kept her out for over a month, and two early exits on her return sandwiched an excellent run to the quarterfinals in Miami, which hinted at the groove she would hit later in the year.
Having previously struggled in Rome and on clay, it was an unlikely venue for her to find her best tennis, despite seeing some positive signs in Madrid, where wins over Alison Riske and Strycova carried her to the last 16 only to be bested by Patricia Maria Tig.
That 6-3, 6-3 victory over Strycova, however, gave her an important psychological edge heading to Italy and proved to be the first in a three-match mini-series between the players in 2016, which Keys, who had lost their only previous meeting in Wuhan two years earlier, swept.
The Czech was enjoying one of the finest seasons of her career, meanwhile. A run to the last 16 in Melbourne had been highlighted by a 6-3, 6-2 win over World No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza in the third round before she was finally ousted by Victoria Azarenka, while she had made the final in Doha.
Her clay court season had begun with promise, too. She was narrowly beaten by World No.25 Samantha Stosur in Prague and had shocked World No.3 Angelique Kerber in Madrid before being stopped by Keys.
In Rome, meanwhile, her progress before the rematch had been formidable. Karin Knapp, Heather Watson and Eugenie Bouchard – all ranked between 46 and 72 in the world – were swept away with ease, Strycova dropping only 11 games in aggregate in these matches.
The progress of Keys at Foro Italico, though, was even more impressive. World No.30 Andrea Petkovic had been dispatched, 6-4, 6-1 in the first round, while she claimed a Top 10 scalp in the form of Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-4, to back up that success. Another straight-sets victory, this time over Timea Babos, sent her into the clash with Strycova with momentum and confidence.
WHAT HAPPENED: It was all Strycova in the early stages as she raced out of the blocks on Grandstand. Hitting with precision and power, she forced her American opponent back in the court and manufactured a couple of early breaks to sprint out to a 3-0 advantage.
When the Czech’s level dipped on serve, though, Keys was in place to take advantage. With Strycova struggling to find her mark, her big-hitting opponent stepped up the court and started to dictate the tempo of the match, winning eight successive points to get on the board twice. With her powerful forehand increasingly making inroads, Keys drew level as she won an epic sixth game on her fifth break point.
The momentum was firmly in the favor of the World No.24, who was displaying some classy flourishes at the net to match her power from deep. Having moved to the brink of the opening set, it was a combination of brains and brawn that helped claim it, with Strycova unable to return a heavy crosscourt hit at an acute angle.
With Keys’ groundstrokes in the zone and Strycova showcasing her famous tenacity, the beginning of the second set made for engrossing viewing. The undoubted highlight was a point at 15-all in the third game, which saw the Czech return a smash virtually on the half volley from inside the baseline before the rally was ultimately claimed by Keys with a crushing down-the-line forehand winner.
It was that type of belligerence, however, that allowed Strycova to draw level. She showed an unwillingness to back down easily, and with her serve functioning more impressively than it had done at key moments in the first, was exerting pressure on Keys.
In the ninth game of the set this proved telling as her opponent made a string of errors to give up an easy break, and with the door open, Strycova barged her way through, taking 13 of the last 14 points to force a decider.
Where there had been regular openings to break in the first two sets, the third was to prove far tighter, with both players increasingly reliable on their delivery. Indeed, there was no hint of break in the opening seven games before Keys leapt into a 0-40 lead on the Strycova serve then forced an error from her opponent with the kind of tenacious stretch on the baseline that her opponent would have been proud of.
Asked to serve out the match, she ultimately claimed the match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 as Strycova fired long, continuing a career-best performance at a tournament she had not previously passed the second round in.
WHAT THEY SAID: For Keys, who would go on to reach the French Open semifinals in 2018, this was a match that helped her realize that she could be a force on clay.
Asked in her post-match interview if she believed she could perform so well on the surface before this victory, she simply smiled: “No.”
She admitted that she had to come into this match with a strong mentality due to the fighting qualities of her rival.
“Her weapon is making you miss and just getting that one extra ball and things like that. There are obviously times I wasn't happy I was making the mistake, but I think you also have to beat her because she's going to stay on the other side and make a lot of balls,” she said.
“You feel like you hit four winners and the ball is coming back over the net.
“There are definitely times when you're thinking: ‘Ohh...!’ But I think if you get stuck on that it can just bring you down. I think that's really the difficult part of playing somebody like Barbora.”
Indeed, Keys had been braced to be psychologically tested throughout the clay court season, having embraced a new attitude towards a surface she had previously been openly hostile to.
“We're not going to not have a clay court season, so going into it being positive about it is the only way to deal with it,” she said. “I think this year it's just been: ‘Okay, let's do a little bit better than last year,’ and not really getting ahead of myself and really just focusing each match, just trying to do what I'm here for,” she said.
WHAT IT MEANT: Keys would go on to enjoy a memorable fortnight in Italy as she made the final of the tournament, overcoming World No.4 Muguruza in her semifinal, 7-6(5), 6-4. World No.1 Serena Williams ultimately stopped her, 7-6(5), 6-3, in her first Premier 5 showcase, but it teed up what was to be her most consistent season.
A trip to the fourth round of Roland Garros followed, while victory on the grass in Birmingham, where she completed a hat-trick of 2016 wins over Strycova in the final, carried her into the Top 10 for the first time in her career.
She completed 2016 by reaching the fourth rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open, too, while there was to be another Premier 5 final, this time in Montreal, and an agonizing fourth-placed finish at the Olympics.
Deep runs in Wuhan, Beijing and Linz, allowed her to reach the 2016 WTA finals for the first time, which she debuted by overcoming Dominika Cibulkova, who ultimately went on to win the event.
Her performance meant that she climbed as high as World No.7, which remains the 25-year-old’s highest career ranking.
While the short-term outcomes for Keys were good, her week in Italy provided a long-term foundation that allowed her to grow into a clay-court threat, peaking as she reached the last four in Paris in 2018 then then quarterfinals a year later.
Strycova, meanwhile, was building towards the high mark of her career, which was achieved in January 2017 as she hit World No.16.
She went to the French Open without a singles victory at the tournament in a decade yet progressed to the third round, where she was edged by World No.2 Agnieszka Radwanska, having led by a set.
The grass court season also proved relatively successful as her run to the final in Birmingham was followed by a third-round appearance at Wimbledon, where she was overcome by the in-form Ekaterina Makarova.
Although she lost in the second round of the Olympics in the singles event, she won bronze with Lucie Safarova in the doubles, but the end of the year was marked by inconsistency, with only a run to the quarterfinals of Wuhan, where she played four successive three-set matches, matching what had gone before it.
Nevertheless, she finished 2016 as the World No.20 and a Fed Cup champion, having played her part in the Czech Republic’s victory over France, giving her momentum to propel her into the new season on a strong footing.