By Jane Voigt
Key Biscayne, Fla. — Before Li Na could get off court she was asked about Madison Keys, the teenager she had just defeated at The Sony Open. “She has a good serve and a big forehand,” Li told fans.
“I think she moves incredibly,” Keys told the press, after her loss 76(3) 62. “She’s all over the court. She takes time away.”
At times in their press conferences it was difficult to tell which was the more mature, like older in years. But on paper the difference is stark. Madison Keys is 19, as of mid-February, and Li Na is 32, as of the end of February.
“I think when I was same age like her, I think she’s much, much better than me, because, you know, Americans have a long history about tennis,” Li said. “She learn tennis in America. They have high goal to have Serena, Venus, and even before, Lindsey Davenport. They looking forward for No. 1.”
Li Na was 9 when first introduced to tennis. In comparison, at 10 the Keys family relocated from Illinois to Florida exclusively for Madison’s tennis. Four years later, she played her first professional ITF (International Tennis Federation) match, losing in the third round. Her WTA debut came the same year at Ponte Vedra Beach. She was the 7th youngest player to win a WTA main-draw match, and the youngest since Martina Hingis in 1994.
Their last meeting was in 2013 at the Mutua Madrid Open. Keys beat Li in the second round. Coming in to today’s match, their head-to-head was 1-1.
“Her serve was more heavier,” Li said. “I was a little bit surprised because I know she has a huge, big serve. But I was feeling now even more heavy.”
Li has rightfully claimed attention for her results. She won The Australian Open in January and The French Open in 2011. However she has not accumulated an abundance of career titles. She has 9, which is less than you might imagine given her age and the years on tour — 15. Keys has no titles, yet. But her game has sizable assets.
In the first set, Li double faulted to give back her break advantage and tie the score at 3-games all. Keys went on to hold and break. She then served for set one. She pummeled her forehand cross court, pushing Li back and back and back until she popped a short one. Thwack! The final forehand blow followed by a booming “Come On!!”
But it was Li, the No. 2 seed, that calmed the youngster and stopped her from getting up a set.
“She was down 3-1 in the first set and then come back up to 5-3” Li began. “I didn’t think about too much. I say, try to do what you have to do. When I save the set point I think this was change the match a little bit because after that I was feeling she’s drop.”
Keys admitted that she played well at times, but that Li “just played the bigger points really, really well.”
Keys pressed Li and kept the ball deep, hanging in rallies so she could take advantage of her forehand. Her improved movement has given Keys confidence. It also surprised her today.
“It’s surprising,” Keys began. “Like, whoa, I got to that. I have to go to another one [smiling]. I mean at 16, 17, I was not the greatest mover [again smiling]. I have more of a confidence in it now. It’s not a liability, you have more options.”
Both these women are playful off court. Madison’s self-effacing comments about her movement made her smile. She talked about junior tennis as if it were back in the day, which is probably five years ago according to her life clock. Li’s animated nature is well known.
“Miami, for me, is like party city,” she said, smiling. “When I was here last Sunday I was like WOW, they have like bars and the music is so loud. How can I get to sleep? But lucky there until 9:30 and they stop. I was like, Oh, finally I can sleep.”
Come to find out Li was a big partier when young, but not anymore. “If you know what happen, you say, Okay, enough.”
But about the multi-colored nails … four blue and one orange?
“Friday I ask the lady, Can I just do like simple, like French [nails]?” Li said. “She say, This is the only thing I know how to do. So I was like, Okay, what I should do? Then I look my shoes. One friend say, Oh, the blue was pretty nice. This I saw I think my match [clothes] were like blue with orange. So I say, Maybe I should do one orange. So I just do that.”
Next time, Li said (smiling) she might ask the tour’s nail expert — Agnieszka Radwanska — for French nails.