Friday’s tussle between Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka at Ashe Stadium was more than entertaining and energizing tennis. It was a look at the future of the women’s game in America.
Keys, already a rising star, rallied to beat Osaka, a future star, in a three-set thriller that was a showcase of youthful power, talent and exuberance. Keys is 21 and Osaka is 18, and the show they put on in the third round of the U.S. Open could run for a whole tennis generation.
It took a third-set tiebreak to decide it, with Keys coming out on top, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3). Their big serves, crunching groundstrokes and quick feet, their willingness to go for it rather than just rally each other into submission, was a delight to the crowd, which got to ooh and aah for a match that didn’t involve Serena Williams.
With a world ranking of No. 9 achieved this year, Keys is the first American woman to break into the top 10 since Williams in 1999. Osaka has dual American and Japanese citizenship, having been born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, and she has lived in the States since she was 3. Her parents chose to have her play under the Japanese tennis federation, but she lives and trains in Fort Lauderdale. She has enough quality wins this season to reach a ranking of 81.
On Friday, she forced Keys to step up or step out.
“I mean, obviously those aren’t the most fun matches, but I just knew that if I stayed in the match that I could maybe have a chance to come back and get back in it,” Keys said. “No matter what the score was, it was always just trying to get back in the match. Once I was able to get a little bit of momentum, I felt like I found my game a bit more. At that point, I knew I had to kind of step up or else I was going to be going home.”
Keys seemed to have the momentum when she broke Osaka to take the first set, then held serve in a strongly contested first game of the second set. At 4-4 and serving up 40-0, Keys committed a series of errors and was broken. Osaka held serve to take the set, and when she broke Keys to start the third set, she had wrested control of the highly entertaining slugfest.
She broke Keys again in the fifth game and held serve for a 5-1 lead, pushing Keys to the brink. Keys had been there before in her opening match against Alison Riske. Riske was two points from winning in the second-set tiebreaker, but Keys rallied for the set and the three-set victory.
After Keys held for 5-2, she continued her aggressive play and got the break she needed when Osaka couldn’t handle a forcing forehand. Osaka was two points from the match at 30-30 on her serve in the 10th game. She came to net on a short ball that should have been a putaway, but she hit her volley long, giving Keys a break point that she converted with a ripped forehand winner for 5-5.
The match went to the tiebreak. There, a forehand return winner put Keys up 4-2, and she pummeled Osaka’s second serve on the next point to lead 5-2. At 6-3, she closed out the match with a big serve.
Osaka’s biggest regret was missing the easy volley. “I think I hit a very ridiculous volley at 30-all, 5-4. Yikes!” Osaka said. “I think if I made that, I would have gotten a match point. I don’t really regret anything, if you’re going to say that. Just I’m a bit disappointed.”
Keys was asked if there is the potential for a rivalry.
“There definitely could be,” she said. “I think she’s a great player and there are a lot of weapons that are going to get her very far. Yeah, I have no doubt she will be around and winning lots of matches.”