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Relief is the perfect word to describe the emotion running through Madison Keys after her round 1 escape against world number 60, Anna Blinkova.

It was a match where the only real adjective to describe it, is not in fact an adjective at all. But ‘rollercoaster’ is that word. An up and down match, where no one looked like winning, but at times, you thought neither could possibly lose.

Of the 27 games played, only ten games were won on serve. This was a match where breaking serve was as common as the bugs falling from the sky onto Margaret Court Arena.

But after nearly two hours, it was Keys who got the win. In her on-court interview, it was clear she’s comfortable on the Melbourne courts, even if her first round match-up wasn’t as easy as some may have anticipated.

“I’m so happy to be back, I always love coming to Australia to start the year, and I feel like I’ve always had some of my best results here. I love the crowds, I love being here, I love when it’s hot….and I really love winning here," Keys said.

She’s right about that. In fact, it is at the first major of the year where Madison has had her best results as far as win percentage goes. With a 25-9 (74%) record here, compared to 68, 69, and 70% at the French, Wimbledon and US Open respectively. She has made the semi-finals twice, including last year, when she ran into a steely Ash Barty.

The only better result she’s had in her career was back in 2017, when Keys made the final of her home Slam, the US. Unfortunately for her, compatriot Sloane Stephens was on a hot streak, and nothing could stop her from taking the title that day.

Yet for all these very respectable results, Madison hasn’t quite hit the heights of some expectations that came her way. Brad Gilbert, a top 10 player in his own right, and the ex-coach of Andre Agassi, at one stage, predicted she would be the world’s best player. If you’ve seen Madison at her best, it’s hard to disagree. Yet we don’t see her at her best for long enough periods. Hence the reason she has only finished the year inside the top ten once in her career, and 6 times in the top 20. She’s thereabouts, but not quite there.

But is her time now?

Although Iga Swiatek has put some distance between her and the rest of the field, there is a depth of talent below her, which includes Madison. Any of the women in the top 20 could realistically hold the trophy at the end of this fortnight. It could become a ‘last woman standing affair’. And Madison can stand up.

Madison’s strengths are widely known. She is one of the most powerful hitters on the tour, especially on the serve, and off the forehand wing. Colleagues on the WTA tour have compared her power to that of Serena Williams, and others, such as Sloane Stephens, have said she has the best forehand in the game.

To give an indication of just how powerful Keys hits the ball, back in 2014, when she was just 19 years of age, data was taken at Roland Garros, on the groundstroke speeds of men and women. Keys held the fastest average speed of all players. Not all women players, but all men and women combined. At an average speed of 127 km/h, she was a full 3km/h faster than Djokovic, the second fastest.

So why does she struggle for consistency? Exactly this reason. She hits it so hard, that her game can be littered with unforced errors, handing cheap points to opponents. She also doesn’t have huge variety in her game. You will rarely see her use a slice, and she is definitely not known for her net game…although, she does know how to volley, having had some fairly solid doubles results, including a semi-final at the French Open.

I can’t help but feel in the next 18 months or so, Madison can win a major title. On her day, she can match it with anyone. Her challenge is converting ‘on her day’, to ‘every day’.

At 27 years old, she should be mentally strong enough to push through matches that aren’t quite going her way – as she did on Margaret Court Arena last night. If she can bring a little more variety to her game, Keys might have the best years of her career ahead of her. Heck, she might be beginning the best two weeks of her career right now. And who knows, maybe Brad Gilbert will be proven right eventually.


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