Thirty Is The New Twenty, there’s no doubt about it. Gone are the days of teenagers claiming Slam titles, and making themselves at home atop the world rankings.
Yet several times during the latest Australian Open, it did look like one player – a possible future legend – would kick off her stellar days while still in her teens.
Madison Keys – a young American who has, despite her youth, been a notable presence on tour for many months – recently became the third 19-year-old in as many years to reach the Australian Open semi-finals. In 2013 and 2014, it was American Sloane Stephens, succeeded quickly by Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who achieved that same feat.
The end result was the same in each of these three cases: A semi-final departure – nothing to be ashamed of, and a fantastic springboard of motivation for them all. However, there are distinct differences between the Melbourne runs of Madison, and the two girls who proceeded her. Differences that encompass even the time span leading up to their Grand Slam accomplishments.
Differences indicating that Keys will become something before her predecessors:
The one to make it big time.
You see, there were similarities in the Australian Open paths Stephens and Bouchard took that were almost sickening in their likeness to each other. But this year, Madison has trodden a trail that marks her out – along with her pre-competition journey – as a star of right now.
Here, we will compare and contrast the build-ups and Aussie Open journeys of these once-19-year-olds… and see what earmarks Madison Keys to, potentially, reach the top of tennis first.
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PRE-AUSTRALIAN OPEN – The Foundation
WTA titles – From the international level competition to the prestigious Grand Slam, winning a WTA title is what marks a player out to be watched.
But prior to the tournaments Down Under in which they truly rose to fame, neither Sloane nor Eugenie had won a WTA title. Not one. Granted, Genie had made it to her first final a few months beforehand. But one fact still remained: As they were yet to claim even the lowest, 250 pointer title (and in Sloane’s case, yet to even make a final), to see them already in such prime position to win a major was almost horrific. They had barely emerged.
Madison, on the other hand, had won a title. And what’s more, that title came not at a bottom-tier tournament, but at a Premier-level event: on the grasscourts of Eastbourne, in June 2014. If you want emphasis on what a great triumph that was, then you may like to know that there are top twenty players struggling to win tournaments of that kind of quality.
First point down. Next up:
WTA Breakout – It’s hard to figure out exactly when a player officially became competition on the pro tour. At the beginning of one’s career there are far too many ups and downs to track it, and it’s obvious that, even now, none of our three youths have truly Made It (hence this post.)
But we can take a look at their rankings journey, to get a vague idea of how they’ve been faring.
Stephens ended 2011 ranked just inside the top 100, at 97. Scanning the results that achieved that ranking, you can see they came mainly at ITF events – the level below the WTA – and in WTA qualifying. 2012 was the year she gained more or less regular attention, and so we can assume it was here that she began to put things together more. It would have made her about eighteen or nineteen at the time of her ‘arrival’.
Bouchard is a different story altogether. The adored Canadian played on the junior circuit for the duration its age limit allowed, thus staying on as all her contemporaries headed for the senior tour. It resulted in her winning junior Wimbledon at the grand old age of eighteen. Ending a year as recently as 2012 still playing against the juniors, it’s only fair to say that she broke out in the latter stages of 2013 – aged nineteen.
And then we come back to Madison Keys, who was notably a promising name before Genie even announced herself on tour. Having won her first WTA main draw matches at the premature age of 14 (her first ever victory was at the age of 14 years and 48 days, against then-world number 81 Kudryavtseva), she picked up odd WTA wins here and there, until she finished 2012 at world number 149. And in 2013, she flew from the offset, ending the season at a dramatically increased ranking of 37.
Which means that Keys officially became notable at the age of… seventeen.
Two down, one to go.
Top Ten Victories – For many players competing on the WTA tour, these victories – or even just one of these victories – would be valued as the pinnacle of their career. But for those young prospects who are destined for superstardom, they are merely essential stepping stones on the way to greater things.
So, how had these three players previously fared in this field?
Once again, Sloane is coupled with the not-such-a-number zero, as she had no such wins before January 2013. Not only was her win over Serena during her Aussie run her first ever top ten win, but her second – over Sharapova, several months later – is currently her last. If you don’t find that cringeworthy, know that both of these victories carried a similarity: Sloane’s opponents were injured.
Genie, as they call her, fared better than Stephens, having two top ten victories to show for herself – albeit in the inconsistent calibre of Samantha Stosur and Jelena Jankovic. But hey, she was not long out of the juniors…
See her achievements as you like, but of course Madison is going to top this category. Shortly after she turned eighteen, she earned a straight sets win over the legendary Li Na, as a lucky loser in the tournament draw. Besides that, she had two more top ten wins to her name, over Jankovic and Angelique Kerber respectively.
And so that brings us to the
Pre-Australian Open Round-up: At the point of their famous runs, Sloane and Genie were still in the earliest stages of creating their tennis portfolios. Contrarily, Madison had slowly and steadily built hers up.
THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN – Key Contrasts
Now to pay attention to the actual events that took place Down Under:
The Seeds – In their years of Australian Open success, Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard snagged tail-end seeds – Sloane grasping 29th, and Genie claiming 30th. It aided their bids for a deep tournament run – not only giving them guaranteed non-seeders for the first few rounds, but giving the other seeds chances to choke or get caught off-guard by a one-hit wonder.
Contrarily, Madison entered her tournament ranked just outside the top 32, at 35, and therefore not eligible for a protective seed.
The Draw – Oh yes, how the draws played out! This is the major difference between these majors, and the biggest reason that Madison has set herself at the head of the triumphant trio.
In her lacklustre (at the time) draw in the Australian Open, 2013, Sloane Stephens pushed through four rounds of unseeded opposition. Her first seeded opponent came in the form of 3rd seed Serena – in the quarter-finals. In a shocking and famous result, the younger Williams sister, clearly hampered and injured, would lose that match in three crazy sets to the young American. Sloane, immediately christened ‘The Next Serena’, was, of course, swept forward on a wave of hype and excitement…
Straight into the waiting jaws of top seed Azarenka. The Belarussian dismissed her swiftly, 6-1 6-4.
Her first quality opponent, and Sloane Stephens was boarding the flight home.
The same can be said for her follower, Eugenie Bouchard. In her first four rounds, the Canadian played no one ranked higher than 70 in the world – which is good enough for a draw at a 250 event. In her quarter-final, she also beat an injured seed – Ana Ivanovic. Before you jump, yes, I know that she could only play what she was given! But it speaks volumes that in her semi-final, she was swiftly swatted aside by a fit and healthy Li Na.
Two draws. Different players. A remarkably similar story.
Yet Madison Keys is a wonderfully different one.
Entering the tournament with a promising new coach in Lindsay Davenport, Madison opened with a straight sets win over Lesia Tsurenko. That already set her up against a seeded player, as she took on Casey Dellacqua in the second round. Casey was stiff business, as she was not just the 29th seed, but had the fiercely patriotic crowd behind her. Taking it all in her stride, Madison ploughed on in three sets.
Next came trouble. Lefty Petra Kvitova, the defending Wimbledon champion and world number four, awaited in round three. Petra on form is a fearsome opponent in women’s tennis, and with the Czech fresh off winning her first title of the year at the Premier event in Sydney, many expected this to be Maddy’s final round.
But this is where Madison truly proved her potential. Stepping up to the mark, she served out a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Kvitova with sound professionalism at which even she could not hide her delight. With her smiles of joy, one felt as though a pair of floodgates, behind which gallons of fierce waves had been building up, had suddenly burst open. Quality Kvitova, not Crazy Kvitova, had been outplayed by another breathtakingly powerful player. One who had suddenly discovered the composure needed to compliment her game.
The niggling feeling was that this was Madison’s real breakthrough in the game of tennis. And a straight sets triumph over Hobart finalist Madison Brengle in round four backed up that theory. She was into her first Grand Slam quarter-final.
There, she would play seven-time Slam champion Venus Williams. But this was not a struggling Venus Williams, as in more recent years. This was a resurgent Venus Williams, who had won respect and inspired many in her Aussie Open run that defied her energy-sapping illness, and had her riding a ten match winning streak.
It was a tough match, with neither woman playing her best. Madison was fighting an injury. But it was still Keys who came out on top that day, prevailing in three gruelling sets to outdo the player who would rise to world number 11 on the following Monday.
That propelled the young American on to come face to face with the Queen of the WTA in the semi-finals: Serena Williams, the world number one. You couldn’t ask for a tougher task.
And in the end, that task was too tough. No one can beat Serena Williams when the American is on her day, and even when she’s not quite there, it’s still a formidable challenge. However, Madison came almost as close as anyone can to taking healthy(ish) Serena down. Using the power she is naturally gifted with, she forced Williams into the defensive style of play that the 33-year-old rarely resorts to. She never stopped fighting, fending off eight match points before Williams eventually claimed victory: 7-6, 6-2.
And so, she waved her last goodbye. Madison Keys departed in the Australian Open semi-finals, just as Sloane and Eugenie had done previously.
But did you spot the differences?
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
Serena once said that Sloane Stephens was a future world number one. Now, she has said the same of Madison Keys. Maybe one day they’ll both have attained that lofty rank, but all the evidence points to Madison getting there first.
After their bolts from the blue in cruising through their open Australian… well, Opens, Stephens and Bouchard climbed the rankings. They both proceeded to go deep at the Grand Slam tournaments multiple times.
But there was one thing they couldn’t do. Apart from a one off outing for Bouchard, neither player proved that they could go on to consistently beat the lower opposition at minor tournaments. They couldn’t do it pre-Aussie Open, and they can’t do it now. To see them upended in the second and third rounds of tournaments by the average player… frankly just isn’t a surprise.
Stephens has now stopped even performing at Slam level, and this – coupled with her inability to take advantage of the usual soft path a top player is gifted – has seen her ranking sink to world number 41. If Bouchard doesn’t take a reality check at the smaller tournaments, then world number seven or not, the Canadian will find herself following suite.
However, Madison was not a bolt from the blue. Madison is a player who has been showing her potential for years, and developing her game bit by bit, taking everything in and gaining gradual confidence. Sloane, Genie and Madison are all power-oriented players – and yet Maddy strikes that ball ten times harder, and with twice a better placement ability, than both of her contemporaries.
She also has a Plan B to her game – something her Canadian competitor could do with taking note of.
She’s built up her results and her wins over top players, and kicked off a new season with her first Grand Slam semi-final showing. Yet besides all this, there is one even bigger factor that could make this Madison’s year to rise to the top:
Her new coach, Lindsay Davenport.
Because this is more than just a high-profile name brought in to threaten the opposition. Lindsay Davenport is a former world number one who has been in exactly Madison’s situation. She has been that clean hitting, strongly built young American girl tipped for the top, and she has walked the path that has taken her to a land called Success.
It is this ability to relate to her new charge that has already had an effect on Madison – and has the potential to go even further.
If there was one thing Madison Keys had that was holding her back, it would have to have been her lack of composure in crucial moments. She already had the natural strength and shot-making ability that other girls only dream of. With Lindsay at her side, she has proven early on that she can keep calm against the toughest players on the biggest stages.
And if she can keep up that momentum – which she shows every intention of doing – there are a torrent of ranking points waiting to pile up in her favour.
If you see Madison Keys’ name in the year-end top ten, don’t be surprised. Be one of those people who can say they saw it coming.
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Thank you so much for reading!
I can’t apologise enough over how long this has taken me – things have been really busy lately, and even now I don’t feel like I’m writing my best. But I hop drove the point home anyway! Please feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment, or even tweeting to The Tennis Obsessed @tennisobsessed_.
Tennis never stops (not even in the off-season!) but while there are a lack of big tournaments at present, I will likely only be updating here about once a week. Over the next few weeks I have other things I need to see to, and I also really need to get around to sorting out the design here!
The twitter account will be more active while the posts are temporarily less frequent.
Thanks for your support!