In just a handful of matches this season, Madison Keys, 17, has allayed any concerns over the future of U.S. women’s tennis. She’s won seven of her last eight matches, including a 6-2, 6-1 victory against No. 30 Tamira Paszek on Wednesday at the Australian Open to advance to the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. The hype machine is on, and the bandwagon is getting a bit stuffy.
Here are five reasons why you should go all in on Keys.
1. She can pop a 120-mph serve: She smacked her first serve in the 115-mph range against Paszek — topping out at 119 mph — and she places her second serve well. The service motion is reminiscent of Serena Williams’, smooth and natural with no quirky hitches that could break down under pressure. That shot will only get better as she gets stronger and gains experience, but unlike other girls her age, Keys says she practices her serve a lot. She knows her game is built around it, and it’s a weapon that already puts her ahead of the game.
2. She has no major weaknesses: Keys, the daughter of two non-tennis-playing lawyers, may not have the flash-and-dash athleticism of Sloane Stephens or the easy power of Laura Robson. But compared to the other teens, she’s as close as you get to a five-tool player. First, she’s not a pure ball basher. There’s intelligence in how she chooses to construct her points. “She’s always had that power, but now she’s harnessing that power,” said ESPN’s Chris Evert, who has known Keys since she was 10. “She’s making good decisions where to hit the ball.”
Second, she has a big, reliable serve, a powerful forehand and a much-improved backhand; she’s willing to finish points at the net; and she moves well. Best of all, she’s already shown a remarkable level of consistency. Keys hasn’t played a ton on the WTA, given the tour’s age-restriction rules. But she won two ITF titles last year and the USTA wild-card playoff for the second straight year. This year, she made her first WTA quarterfinal in Sydney, where she notched her first top-20 win and served for the match against Li Na before losing 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2. She could hang with the best.
“It was a huge confidence boost,” Keys said on ESPN. “It made me feel really good. It made me see that if I’m playing well and staying calm and everything I can play pretty well.”
3. She has the poise: Petulance is a common sight when you spend hours watching teenage WTAers play. When things go wrong, they scream and slump their shoulders and things, whether rackets or expletives, go flying. Keys’ maturity betrays her age. She admits she can get emotional on the court, but she’s working on it. “I really have to stay in the moment,” she said. “Just focusing on playing tennis and staying just playing tennis has helped a lot.”
She faced a good test in the first round against Australia’s Casey Dellacqua in a Fed Cup atmosphere. With a hostile crowd cheering her errors and backing her opponent, Keys held her ground to win 6-4, 7-6 (0). She finished off Paszek by firing her fastest serve of the day and then an ace down the tee. She didn’t drop to the ground. She didn’t let out a squeal. She smiled, fist-pumped and walked to the net to shake hands. That’s what you want to see from a young talent. She’s not surprised she won. She expects it.
“I feel more prepared for this [major],” she said. “My first U.S. Open main draw [in 2011], it was a big stadium and [I] wasn’t really used to it. But I feel good about this one so far.”
4. The experts say she’s the real deal: Brad Gilbert believes Keys is a future No. 1 and Slam champion. He’s not alone. The entire ESPN commentary crew — which includes USTA head of player development Patrick McEnroe, Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez and the always-trustworthy Darren Cahill — has spent the last few days heaping praise on Keys. Tennis Channel’s Lindsay Davenport is on board, too:
Really fun watching Keys play. Regardless on how this tourney plays out, incredible potential. Best hope I've seen for US since Williams'.—
Lindsay Davenport (@LDavenport76) January 16, 2013
5. She’s only going to get better: Keys is easily playing at a top-30 level already. Her movement can get sharper. She can continue to improve in her transition game, getting to the net to finish points. Her weaker backhand improved dramatically in the last year. Most of all, at 17, Keys is already winning big matches without the benefit of experience. As she starts her first full year on the WTA Tour — she turns 18 on Feb. 17 and thus can play outside of the age-restriction rules — Keys will continue to learn. Perhaps the only question is whether she can handle the increased pressure and expectation that come with being anointed — along with Stephens — the future of American tennis. So far, Keys isn’t too worried.
“I kind of have to just have to try and keep a sense of normal in an abnormal world,” she said.