By James Rogers
This match was always going to be decided on the serve; it just wasn’t clear whose serve that would be. Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe -- a study in similarities on court and contrasts off -- traded momentum shifts and the rare service break in a 1 hour 56 minute first-round match at Cincinnati on Monday. The Americans, who dictate with first serves and huge returns, are arguably the most likely Americans under 30 to win a Slam; they are also both prone to wild swings in concentration and accuracy.
In this rematch of the Stanford final -- which Keys won in two tight sets -- it was easy to appreciate both players’ intensity and power off the ground. Keys came out of the gate strong, pounding returns to earn a break in the third game. At one point in the first set, 14 straight points were won by the server (two holds at love for Keys, one for Vandeweghe). Both players protected their serves with ease after Madison’s early break, but Keys and her ground game drew sloppy errors from CoCo to decide the set.
Vandeweghe pounced to a 3-0 lead in the second set after breaking Keys’ serve. CoCo did a good job to stay tight to the baseline, her aggression forcing Madison to produce a rash of errors. Serving for the set at 5-3, Vandeweghe scrambled to return an overhead smash by Keys and finished the point with a brilliant pass. She won the set with a 117 mph unreturnable serve.
The third set saw Madison race to a 3-0 lead, aided by a few poorly timed double faults from this year’s Australian Open semifinalist. At that point, Madison couldn’t miss; even her mishits clipped the lines. Despite CoCo’s comeback to tie the set at three games apiece, it was Keys’ serve that would ultimately decide the match.
At 5-3, CoCo saved three straight match points, but Madison closed her out 6-3 to bring their head-to-head to 2-0. After the match Madison noted, “It’s never easy to play a friend.” The two shared a warm embrace at net after the match, like they did two weeks ago in Stanford, and it was Keys who was again the victor.
Keys’ serve guided her through the tensest moments of the third set. It got her out of trouble when Vandeweghe erased Keys’ 3-0 lead: “In my head I was just thinking, you’re back on serve. It’s back even, and just focus on your serve and see if you get any chances in return games. And luckily I did.”
That game plan can be exciting in its simplicity. There is a terrible beauty to 115 mph serves, to Madison’s graceful ball toss with her palm raised toward the heavens, to CoCo’s menacing forward motion. Women’s tennis must always defend itself on many fronts, from style to athleticism to economics. But, Keys and Vandeweghe led the night session in a tournament marred by withdrawals, reminding fans that American women’s tennis is thriving. There was magic tonight in two women facing off, thumping the stitching out of the ball, sounding their yawps over the rooftops of American tennis.