WIMBLEDON, England — Madison Keys defeated Great Britain’s Heather Watson 6-3, 7-5 on Tuesday in her Wimbledon debut, making the 18-year-old American 3-0 in first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments this year.
Keys, a Rock Island, Ill., native, hasn’t taken too many missteps in her first full year as a professional. Though she turned pro in 2009, Keys played a limited schedule because of the WTA’s restrictions on players under 18. Last year, she played seven WTA-level events; this year, she’s already played 14, including three quarterfinal appearances and a third-round showing at the Australian Open. She’s been winning on all surfaces — she played her three quarterfinals on hard courts, green clay and grass — and her ranking has steadily climbed from No. 137 to No. 52. She says her body has withstood the rigors of a full schedule so far, while her young age, consistency (she’s been a reliable early-round winner) and big game have already been turning heads.
“I thought, ‘This girl’s got a good game, she’s going to start climbing,’” Watson said after the loss, recalling her initial impressions of Keys when she saw her play for the first time a year ago. “She’s climbed so quick. Some outsiders might look at my draw and think, ‘She hasn’t got a seeded player, she’s got a good draw.’ But I know Madison is a good player. She’s going to be top 30 soon and maybe even higher.”
Keys’ game is well-suited for grass, but it was difficult to predict how she would fare against Watson’s defensive style and the low bounces yielded by the grass courts. Then there was the issue of the partisan crowd, which obviously backed Watson from the start. During the warm-up, Keys netted a forehand and heard cheers. Like the veteran she isn’t, she shrugged it off.
“I would rather it be very loud against me than completely silent,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do with complete silence.”
Keys’ moderate success this year hasn’t come completely out of the blue, but her consistent results weren’t expected either. She’s been a young name to watch for years, given her style of play, but the results rarely came when she was a junior.
“When I was growing up in juniors, I was terrible,” she said last month. “I always lost. I rarely ever won any junior tournaments. … I think I just had a game where you kind of have to put it together. So it took me a lot longer to understand how to do everything and I’m still trying to figure it out. So when I was younger, I would try to hit a winner from 15 feet behind the baseline. That doesn’t work. So I wasn’t a very good junior.”
After four weeks on clay, Keys is relieved to be back on the quicker surfaces of grass and hard courts. She’s still a relative newbie when it comes to the soft green stuff, but in her first main-draw tournament on grass, she made the quarterfinals in Birmingham just two weeks ago. When she’s serving well, the free points come freely.
“Still trying to get used to it,” she said Tuesday. “Haven’t played lots of matches on grass. But, I love the serve on grass, love that there’s not long points like on red clay.”
Keys was asked to describe herself in one word. Like any proper teenager, she began her answer with a protracted “Uhhhhh…,” then, with a straight face, she settled on her answer. “Sarcastic.”
“I’m more of a laid‑back person,” she explained. “I like to find the humor in things. I mean, all my friends know that I’m a very sarcastic person. I like to make everyone laugh. Don’t really like tense moments.”
Keys admits she can get negative on court, but she tries to check that side of her personality. She knows it does nothing to help her game.
“I think for me sometimes if I allow myself to get too down on myself or if I let my emotions on the court more so, it doesn’t help me,” Keys said. “So I try to stay more serious and more focused on the court. … I’m sure the real me will come out a couple of times throughout my career. But hopefully I’m going to try to keep the serious Madison on court more often,” she said, laughing.
Keys plays No. 30 Mona Barthel on Thursday.