By Jane Voigt
Madison Keys and Angelique Kerber have been here before. On a big stage, ready for battle. The German, and 2016 Australian Open Champion Kerber, leads their head-to-head, 6-1. But glances backward coupled with speculation forward should be thrown out the window. As they say, this is a Grand Slam quarterfinal; all bets are off.
That said, who will win?
“It’s going to be brutal,” Keys said, Australia’s Herald Sun wrote.
The clash will be a classic of power versus defense, a play in three acts if necessary. Keys can hit ground strokes as hard as some men. Kerber runs down every ball, anticipates like a hawk and rights her mind quickly either way up or down, despair or joy.
Both women are healthy now. Yet both have suffered.
Kerber slid down the WTA rankings last year, after having reached number one and winning two Grand Slams in 2016: the Australian Open and the U.S. Open.
Keys’ problematic wrist — she’s undergone two operations since December 2016 — plus her loss to friend Sloane Stephens in the all-American final of the U.S. Open left scars.
“The disappointment is always going to be there,” Keys, now 22, told The New York Times earlier this month. “No one who has gotten second place at a Grand Slam is ever like, ‘Yeah, now I feel fine about it.’ Everyone wants the other trophy.”
The loss, though, provided a platform for recovery.
“But, it inspires you to work harder and get yourself in that position again so that you can use what you’ve learned.”
And that’s where Madison is today: In the position to use what she’s learned.
Lindsay Davenport, Key’s coach, won the Australian Open in 2000. She seems confident that Madison is primed not to just win her match against Kerber, but to win her first major title.
“She’s in a great place and playing well and really happy to be playing,” Davenport told The Herald Sun. “The whole team’s really excited for her and we hope for more. She’s doing everything that you need to be doing to be successful in the training weeks.”
At the Open, four American women became the marquee lineup in those semifinals. Keys felt some pressure in that situation, Davenport implied. In Melbourne, though, the stage has shifted. Keys is the last American woman in the singles’ draw.
“It’s the opposite [here] and we had that talk Tuesday. [I told her] you have to do everything you can not to join them. We always stress being solid, learning to win when you’re not playing your best. Kerber, though, is obviously a much different test.”
Kerber was tested by Hseih Su-Wei today in the fourth round, but won 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. Their defensive styles created a rough scene, as both cancelled out much possibility of closing points with knock-out winners.
“This win gives me a lot of confidence that I can also turn around matches,” Kerber said. “The game style was really tricky.”
Kerber’s coaching relationship with newly-hired Wim Fissette has helped her enjoy the good parts of her training and match play. This message is similar to ones Davenport imparts on Keys.
“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court,” Keys said. “I obviously missed a lot of tennis last year and wasn’t playing well at the beginning. I realized once I just let things happen and trusted myself and just played my game, good things were happening and good outcomes were happening. So, I just keep focusing on that and not putting as much pressure on myself.”
“It’s a great feeling to be back in the quarters,” Kerber said. “I had a tough off-season and right now I’m trying to enjoy it.”
Of the seven matches they’ve played, Keys triumphed once winning the final in Eastbourne on grass in 2014. With the courts at this year’s Australian Open playing quickly, Keys could have an edge. She tends to play fast and likes fast, just watch how she moves from point to point.
Both women are on upward trends of their careers, though. Kerber wants her second Australian Open title. Keys wants her first major title. The question is who will move from point to point, managing the moments of adversity without losing enthusiasm.