Madison Keys is a classic American power player.
She serves big and takes big swings. Her average groundstroke speed routinely exceeds most men’s efforts. Keys is built for hardcourt success. She reached the finals of the US Open in 2017 and the 2015 semifinals of the Australian Open.
Typically, this style doesn’t travel well on to clay, where patience is the most critical of virtues. But tucked into Keys’ resume are a surprising semifinal run at Roland Garros (2018), two clay finals – Charleston (2015) and Rome (2016) – and a title two years ago in Charleston.
Yes, the 26-year-old is your defending champion of the Volvo Car Open that begins Monday.
“With a year in between,” Keys said, laughing. “I’ve always loved Charleston. It was actually my first clay-court final, way back when.”
Keys, who is tied for fifth on the all-time Charleston win list, talked about her clay-court acumen before last week’s Miami Open. “Way back when” was only six years ago. Does she feel old?
“I usually don’t,” Keys said. “But people started calling me a veteran on tour, so I’m just rolling with it. Yes, in real life, I know I’m not old. In tennis, apparently, I’m old.”
Tennis is getting younger all the time.
In terms of age, believe it or not, Keys is beginning to skew toward the upper end. World No.1 and Miami Open champion Ashleigh Barty, 24, headlines a strong Volvo Car field that features nine of the top 20 players. Second-seeded Sofia Kenin is only 22. Petra Kvitova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Elise Mertens, Kiki Bertens, Elena Rybakina, Maria Sakkari, Marketa Vondrousova and Ons Jabeur – are joined by teenagers Leylah Fernandez, the newly minted Monterrey champion, Amanda Anisimova and Coco Gauff.
Charleston, which runs from April 5-11, marks the adventuresome turn from hardcourts to clay.
After 7 years, 22 matches & 2 finals, @Madison_Keys finally captured the #CHS trophy in 2019. 🏆 Although she had never before won a set over Grand Slam winner & past #VolvoCarOpen champion Caroline Wozniacki, the American player powered past her opponent in the final battle. pic.twitter.com/dQZV2U2GHS— Volvo Car Open (@VolvoCarOpen) April 2, 2021
Keys, who has gotten off to a disappointing 2-3 start in 2021, can’t wait. It’s been a difficult 15 months. After going 28-15 in 2019, winning the titles at Charleston and Cincinnati, as well as solid major runs in Melbourne, Paris and New York, 2020 produced a tepid record of 8-5.
And then she tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the 2021 Australian Open and didn’t get onto the court until Dubai and Doha.
“Obviously bad timing for Australia,” Keys said. “But I was one of the lucky ones. All I had was a runny nose.”
Keys said she’s been working on early points in the rally, “being really solid, making the first couple of balls since they’re the most important. And getting to the net more often and dictating points.”
International Tennis Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver has watched Keys’ career from the beginning.
“I think there have been some complications with belief and trust,” Shriver said. “Staying healthy has also been a factor for her.
“If she can cut down on – it kind of sounds random – say, 15 percent of her unforced return errors on big points, it would go a long way. If she can just carve some of those out and make the opponent earn those points. When she’s playing at her best, she’s patient through the six-to-eight-ball rallies.
“And then she’s ready to pounce with her power.”
And when she’s been successful on the clay, that’s just how Keys has operated.
“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “On hard and grass it’s so much more about zero to four-ball rallies. But on clay, you have to be committed to being fine with the rally going, five, six, seven balls.
“I’ve actually gotten much more comfortable on clay, especially the last five or six years. I have consistently gotten better and better on clay. I think my game is actually really suited to clay, as long as I mentally am ready to be committed to playing those two or three more extra balls every single point.”
After her terrific 2019 season, Keys might have seen her momentum checked by the pause is play as much as any player other than Barty.
“Obviously, just focusing on myself I would maybe agree with that,” Keys said, “but at the same time I think it’s just been a really tough time for everyone. So I’m just happy that it seems like we have a very full schedule and we’re on our way back to having at least a somewhat normal tennis year.
How does she recapture that energy?
“I just have to get out there and try to play to the best of my ability every time I’m out on the court,” she said. “I am obviously searching for some momentum, but that can come quickly in tennis. So just staying positive and working toward getting some matches under my belt.”
A good result in Charleston would go a long way toward recreating those positive vibes.
- Barty, her world No.1 secure until at least Madrid, has a way with clay. Can she make the transition and build toward Paris, where she won her only Grand Slam title two years ago?
- After her stunning victory ended Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak, can Sakkari, a Miami semifinalist, keep it going?
- Kenin, who reached the Roland Garros final last fall, has proven she can win on the dirt. After losing four of her past six matches, can she find comfort on the green clay?
- Who will break out of the pack and create some excitement, following the example of Sara Sorribes Tormo and Anastasija Sevastova in Miami?
- Can Fernandez, Anisimova and the 17-year-old Gauff make an impression on their elders?
- How will those heavy hitters – Kvitova and Keys – fare when the power balls won’t go through the court as readily?