American Dream: Biggest Title For Keys And By The Slimmest Of Margins

Madison Keys (photo: Cincy Tennis)

CINCINNATI, August 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

On paper, 16th seed Madison Keys had the edge. She came into Sunday afternoon’s women’s final of the Western & Southern Open against resurgent wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova sporting a perfect 3-0 record. Each of their three meetings – the last one came in Beijing three years ago – have come on hard courts. Each time, the American has won in straight sets.

While it takes a long time to build up confidence, it only takes a short time to lose it. Add to it, a blistering hot day on Center Court at the Lindner Family Tennis Center awaited the players – where temperatures reached 91º Fahrenheit but felt like 101º – and it’s no surprise that whoever emerged victorious in this WTA Premier 5 final would earn their title. It wouldn’t be an easy feat.

With clarity and great fight, Keys won her fifth career title and second of the season with a 7-5, 7-6 (5) victory over the 153rd-ranked Kuznetsova in one hour and 44 minutes. The 24-year-old American handled the pressure against her older, 34-year-old opponent well and finished with 13 aces and 43 winners that overcame her 33 unforced errors. She broke Kuznetsova’s serve three times in seven tries. The Russian finished with 13 winners and 13 unforced errors – and was just 2-for-7 on break-point chances.

“I think I just really focused in on obviously really important games and was able to make her play a lot of balls. Luckily, I figured out a way to level up the scoreline,” said Keys during her post-match news conference, quoted by the WTA Tour website.

“I think I served really well today, especially in certain pockets. I think when I was doing a good job at moving forward and kind of trying to neutralize some of her deep, heavy, spinny shots, I was able to get out in front in the point and play a little bit more offense.

“It’s obviously the biggest title I have ever won, and, I mean, it was a tough draw from the very start. I played some really, really great players from Round 1 until today. I definitely think I played some of my best tennis consistently this week.”

In a week of upsets (top seed Ashleigh Barty went out in Saturday’s semifinals to Kuznetsova) and injuries (No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka had to retire during Friday’s quarterfinals due to a knee injury and Serena Williams withdrew before her first match) in the women’s draw, the winner might as well been the one who could cope with the heat best while showing the most confidence and desire. After stringing together wins over quality opponents like Garbiñe Muguruza, Daria Kasatkina, Simona Halep, Venus Williams and Sofia Kenin – and with the U.S. Open just a week away – Keys looks ready to make a run in the year’s final Grand Slam event.

Keys’s Cincinnati triumph was her second hard court title coming after Stanford in 2017 and it marked her fifth title overall. Each time she’s reached a final, it has come at a Premier 5-level or higher. On the strength of her latest victory, Keys will return to the WTA Top 10.

After trailing much of the first set, Keys won the last four games, breaking Kuznetsova in the 10th and 12th games. Then, she saved a break point at 5-all in the second set that was a catalyst in putting an end to Kuznetsova’s chance of winning her first title of the season. The Russian never had a set-point opportunity in either set.

The Cincinnati final was the first hard court final for Keys since she reached the 2017 U.S. Open final. It was the first time an American has been a finalist since Williams lifted the trophy in 2015. Keys advanced to the Cincinnati final for the first time with a semifinal win over Kenin, 7-5, 6-4, in which she struck 14 aces. It ended a dubious streak of failing to advance past the second round of her last three tournaments.

“I always love having matches under my belt, and being able to be in a final before the U.S. Open, and feeling good about my tennis, is always a good thing,” Keys said in a TV interview after her semifinal victory on Saturday. “I’m just super excited to get to come out and play in front of everybody again.”

As for Kuznetsova, who was appearing in just her ninth tournament this year, she knocked off two Top Five players (No. 1 Barty and No. 3 Karolina Pliskova) during the week en route to reaching her first final of the season. The St. Petersburg native is finally healthy after recovering from a lengthy sabbatical caused by a knee injury. Her victory against Barty on Saturday was her first Premier-level semifinal since 2017 in Madrid.

“Well, sometimes in life, it’s like this,” Kuznetsova said after her 6-2, 6-4 semifinal win over Barty. “It’s like really small things change everything. Definitely, it’s different momentum I have now.”

After her loss to Keys, Kuznetsova reflected on her finish She said: “Overall, it’s great week. You know, I have been beating great players. I feel great. You know, each match which I played three-setter could go either way. I’m happy I won most of them.

“I’m trying to see positive in everything, it’s more motivation for me for the future. I’m giving developing positive things. I want to have day or two rest and just to get ready for the Open. It’s new challenge. That’s it.”

By the numbers

Final attendance for the week at the Western & Southern Open was 198,044, the second highest in tournament history, behind the 199,217 fans who attended the 2015 tournament.