The Stars, Stripes and the ‘merican Way
Since the days of Chris Evert’s baseline grinding and Martina Navratilova’s chip and charge, America’s tennis players have evolved with their sport. Aggressive “jocks” populate both tours, and they typically don’t enjoy playing much defense. Instead, they rely on the one-two punch of their serve and forehand. The prototype for American success, players in this mold have done a lot of winning for the Stars and Stripes for the better part of three decades.
It was a banner day for two of these prototypical American women on Saturday as both Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys won their first career WTA titles. Vandeweghe, who qualified and upset Muguruza and Klara Koukalova en route to the final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, defeated Chinese veteran Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-4. Half a continent away in Eastbourne, Madison Keys rolled through the field before outlasting Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the final of the Premier-level event in Eastbourne.
For most of her career, you could pencil Vandeweghe, the 2008 US Open girls’ singles champion, in for one or two flashy weeks a year. But for Keys, it’s been a matter of when, not if. She first jumped on the radar when she became the seventh-youngest player ever to win a WTA match (14 years, 48 days) at Ponte Vedra Beach in 2009. Before this week, Vandeweghe’s career-high ranking barely passed above No. 70, while Keys has been the youngest player inside the top 50 since the end of 2013. Two players, two very different expected career trajectories. What could they have in common?
You guessed it. Massive serves and forehands.
Vandeweghe served 81 aces in eight matches en route to the title, with 59 coming in the main draw. In the final, against a woman whose pinpoint accuracy on returns has even given Serena Williams fits, Vandeweghe lost just one point behind her first serve in the match. For all of her strengths, Zheng’s not very tall, and Vandeweghe used her kick serve and topspin forehand to keep the 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist off balance for the duration.
For a player who won just four games against noted grass-court expert Sara Errani at Wimbledon just two years ago, Vandeweghe’s performance was even more impressive.
Keys, who can match Vandeweghe’s pace on serve and then some, also possesses lethal variety on both her first and second deliveries. She cracked a 131 MPH let. She thought she held a WTA top-five record for all but a moment, and might’ve been disappointed when her 126 MPH delivery was re-calibrated to a paltry 123 MPH. Her kick serve often bounced head-high.
She hit 60 winners in her championship defeat of one of the WTA’s premier defenders, and even now, her raw brand of attacking tennis is tailor-made for the grass. Able to scorch her forehand from anywhere on the court, it’s easy to marvel at Keys’ ability to create everything out of nothing on that side.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Keys’ run to the Eastbourne title was her ability to reign in her seemingly untamable power, something she’s struggled to do in many matches so far in her fledgling career. Her backhand, the weaker of her two sides, held up throughout the week. She’s joked about her allergy to coming to the net, but found herself there often in the championship match. The next logical progression for her game, she won 14 of 19 points in the forecourt against Kerber.
Keys and Vandeweghe now set their sights on the All-England Club, where both are unseeded. Keys will take on Monica Puig in the opening round, whom she’s 0-2 against, while Vandeweghe will take on Muguruza for the second time in two weeks. While it remains to be seen how the two will perform at Wimbledon, one thing remains certain. They know their strengths.
Whatever the result, their serves and forehands will be firing.
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