Keys set for spring revival

 - Chris Oddo

The 2018 Roland-Garros semi-finalist appears to be finding her long-lost rhythm

Madison Keys, Roland Garros 2021, second round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Springtime in Paris? Works for Madison Keys.

Though the American 2018 semi-finalist has proven on many occasions that she can be a formidable force on the red clay in any conditions - she certainly does have her preference.

"Definitely very different conditions than when we were here last year. I think all in all you can have days like today, then you can also have days where it's cold and heavy, so you have to be ready for anything," Keys says, before adding with a smile, "I'm definitely more happy when it's beautiful and sunshine in Paris."

The world No.24 saved her sunny disposition for the press room on Wednesday, as she was fiery and intense on Court 6, sailing past precocious Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez 6-1, 7-5.

The trademark rambunctious performance featured 31 winners and six aces from the racquet of the hard-hitting Keys.

Keys, who will face No.15 seed Victoria Azarenka in the third round, may be finding her mojo at the perfect time.

"I'm looking forward to it," Keys said of facing the two-time Slam champion. "She's obviously playing some really impressive tennis the past 18 months. I know it's going to be a really difficult match, super high intensity."

It has been a long road for the American over the last 18 months. The pandemic has been particularly tough on Keys, as she was diagnosed with Covid-19 in January, just before she was set to depart for this year’s Australian Open. 

The former world No.7 eventually began her season in March in Dubai, which explains why Keys has found herself lacking rhythm. She has played a scant 15 matches since the WTA Tour restarted last August. 

Madison Keys, Roland Garros 2021, second round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

“I feel like I'm in a pretty good spot in my life but obviously it is difficult being a tennis player and feeling like you can't quite get your footing back and getting that rhythm,” she said earlier this spring, before beginning her clay-court season in Charleston.

Keys hoped a return to the clay might help her connect the dots of her high-risk, high-reward game, the belief being that a slower surface might help her rediscover feel for her strokes again. 

"I think in the past, when I'm kind of struggling to find my footing on the faster hard courts, clay has really slowed the game down and helped me piece together my game again and gotten me ready for those faster courts,” she explained. 

She could be turning the corner in Paris. 

First-round losses in Charleston and Madrid may not have dazzled on paper, but in reality Keys was progressing. She defeated 2019 Roland-Garros runner-up Sloane Stephens in Rome for her first win on the surface since her trip to the last eight in Paris in 2019, and is now starting to resemble the menacing Keys that has done so much damage in recent years at Roland-Garros. 

"I think this is the first time in a while for me to be able to have consistent matches in a row on the same surface," Keys said after her win over Fernandez. "In Madrid, I think I played [Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova] really close.

"She was obviously playing really well that week. Then in Rome to be able to get a win, be able to play a couple matches, then get a little bit more practice on clay, I'm feeling like I'm finding my rhythm a bit more. It's been really good to do that, have that kind of stretch of tournaments since I haven't had that for a while."

Though she was the dominant player against Fernandez, Keys had to weather several tough patches in the second set - another good sign that things are finally clicking.

"I mean, she is such a great fighter," Keys said. "I kind of expected it. But, yeah, I was really happy to be able to close out that set the way that I did."