Madison Keys is finally finding her footing on clay as she gets ready for her first Roland Garros quarter-final.
It’s no secret that Madison Keys has had a complicated relationship with clay over the years but the 23-year-old American is probably developing positive feelings about the red dirt now that she has made it into the Roland Garros quarter-finals for the first time.
Keys, seeded 13 in Paris, completed the set of last-eight appearances at all four Grand Slams when she eased past Mihaela Buzarnescu in the fourth round on Sunday to set up a Tuesday quarter-final against the volatile Yulia Putintseva.
A runner-up at the US Open last season, Keys is into the quarter-finals at a third consecutive major and a fifth time overall, and admits she’s finally starting to enjoy the clay.
“I like it a little bit more now,” Keys says with a smile.
“It’s always a little bit easier to like it when you’re in the quarter-finals, though.”
In a bottom half of the draw that was thrown wide open with the defeats of several high seeds early on in the tournament, Keys has a golden opportunity in front of her to go further than she ever expected at the French Open.
“It’s been obviously really exciting for her and for all of us. Because I think the expectations weren’t super-high coming here,” Keys’ coach Lindsay Davenport told Sport360.
“But this was the first clay-court season that she’s gone early, and she went for Fed Cup and stayed all the way over.
“She’s feeling good, obviously being healthy is most important, but sometimes it’s just an attitude and a presence that a player has and since the draw came out and since she took the court for her very first match, she has been completely fine.
“Hasn’t been overwhelmed with doubts about the surface or how her game translates on the surface, and that obviously makes a big difference.”
Keys started with a semi-final showing on green clay in Charleston in April, before heading to France where she helped USA defeat the hosts in Fed Cup. An early exit in Madrid was followed by two good wins in Rome before she pulled out of her last-16 clash with Simona Halep with a rib injury.
But before she withdrew from Rome, there was a noticeable calmness to Keys, who was flying solo there, without a coach, having split with Dieter Kindlmann, who had been traveling with her for a year, since they teamed up in May 2017.
“We could not communicate,” Keys said of why she parted ways with Kindlmann, who is a former hitting partner of Maria Sharapova.
“It seems like we were both trying to say the same thing but could never get it. He’s a great guy and it was obviously a tough decision, it’s not the perfect timing for that, but it just became too hard trying to communicate and it just seems like we weren’t really getting it.”
And what was life like flying solo?
“I’ve been getting my own stringing done, today we should practice at this time, let’s see who is open. It’s really like ‘man I’ve got this’,” she said in Rome.
Davenport caught up with Keys in Paris ahead of the French Open and is proud of how her charge handled the decision to part ways with Kindlmann.
“It’s definitely gone better than I thought it would go. Sometimes you try and make something work that is hard to work,” explained Davenport, a former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam champion.
“She was the one who made the final decision.
“My biggest thing with her, over the years, is: You are in charge, you are the boss. And I think for a lot of young players coming up, they follow what other people do for them or tell them.
“When the message comes down, it’s like, ‘okay, I respect that, this is your ship, now what do you want to do though? Now you have to deal with the ramifications’.
“And I give her a lot of credit, she was without a coach for 10, 11 days and she was like ‘I know, I got it’. USTA coach, Ola (Malmqvist) came in to help her because I told her, ‘I can’t get into Paris until May 25’ and she was like ‘I know, I’m good’.
“And Ola helped her for a few days here. And then I think we fell into a nice rhythm here again and things are okay. She took it upon herself and sometimes you need to go through those times where you are responsible. She stepped up to the plate and now the look will start for someone else.”
Keys gives a lot of credit to Davenport when it comes to her success at the Slams.
“Lindsay has been amazing for me in a lot of ways, but I think we have always really managed slams well, which, before I started working with her was always a tough one for me, especially managing my emotions,” explains Keys.
“But not only that, she’s just really helped me enjoy the game, and she helped me through a really tough time when I was dealing with my wrists and all of that. Having her in my corner, whether formally as my coach or not, she’s someone that I have always relied on, and I probably always will.”
Keys went through a rough period at the end of 2016 and start of 2017, undergoing two wrist surgeries.
She rebounded by making her first Grand Slam final at the US Open in September, where she lost to fellow American and good friend Sloane Stephens.
“I think the US Open, for me, was a lot higher energy and just because it was late at night and all of that. So to be here and just kind of consistently getting through and just being happy with kind of low-drama matches has been really nice,” says Keys.
Keys and Stephens could potentially face off in the semi-finals, if the former gets past Putintseva, and the latter overcomes Daria Kasatkina in the last-eight.
Stephens leads her friend 2-0 head-to-head but that hasn’t stopped Keys from rooting for her this fortnight in Paris.
“During treatment yesterday I had Sloane on and was living and dying on every point in the end. I saw her in the locker room, and I was, like, ‘God you made me nervous at the end’. She was, like, ‘You were nervous?’” Keys said on Sunday, referring to Stephens’ narrow victory over Camila Giorgi in the third round.
“I always want to see Sloane do well. I’d love for both of us to be able to be in the position to play each other multiple times. I’d love to be able to get a win,” she added with a smile.
“I’m always cheering for her.”
Keys believes managing expectations and nerves will be the key for her moving forward at Roland Garros and it starts with taking on a tricky opponent in Putintseva, who is through to her second quarter-final in Paris.
The 23-year-old Kazakh is known for her fiery and unpredictable personality on the court, which can often be a distraction for her opponents. Putintseva defeated Keys in their only previous meeting, 7-6 in the third set in Tokyo in 2016.
“We talked about that a lot in today’s practice. What she [Putintseva] does to try to disrupt her opponent. It could be stuff she does, it could be her game. Whether she throws in a moonball or a drop shot, or whether she makes the umpire come down and question a mark that is obviously going one way, none of that can matter,” said Davenport.
“I think Madison is so much more mature now than she’s been in the past, I think she can handle situations like that. On top of the opponent, she also has to handle the occasion, and hopefully she’s able to do that tomorrow.”
With the bottom half of the draw providing a huge opportunity for all four players still standing, Davenport sees Stephens as a real threat.
“Sloane has looked really good throughout and I thought, when she got by that Giorgi match, you always have one match in a Slam when you don’t play your best, how do you handle that situation? Do you fight through it, do you get better? And that’s exactly what happened with Sloane. She comes in with a lot of momentum,” said the American.
This is the first time since 1999 that two American women (Keys and Stephens), not named Williams, have made the quarter-finals in Paris.
Will they square off in the semis? It’s a genuine possibility!