When Madison Keys fulfills the potential that so many see in her, she will close out a match like this one.
On Sunday, the 20-year-old Keys had a crowd of 8,023 fans at the Family Circle Cup’s Stadium Court on her side, chanting “Let’s go, Madison!” at several junctures. She had a worthy opponent, world No. 16 Angelique Kerber, on the ropes with a 4-1 advantage in the third set. She had her second WTA title and first on clay within her grasp.
It didn’t happen.
The 27-year-old Kerber demonstrated the difference between the wiles of a WTA veteran and the promise of youth, rallying for a hard-fought 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory over Keys in the final of the Family Circle Cup on Daniel Island.
Kerber dropped to her knees and then to her back after clinching the victory in 2 hours and 16 minutes. It was her fourth win on tour and earned her $124,000. Kerber also kept the Cup in German hands; her victory followed that of friend and countrywoman Andrea Petkovic last year.
“I mean, it’s unbelievable,” said Kerber, who went 0 for 4 in WTA finals last year, the only top-10 player to fail to win a title. “To win the title here in Charleston after really difficult weeks that I had, I’m feeling great. I had last year four finals and I didn’t won one, so it’s great to win actually this tournament.”
Keys, ranked No. 20 in the world, defeated Kerber in three sets to win her first title last year. But that was on grass at Eastbourne in Great Britain. On Charleston’s clay on a cool and breezy Sunday, she couldn’t close the deal.
“Yes, I was up 4-1,” a teary Keys said afterward. “But at the same time, it’s one break, and she completely lifted her level. You know, it kind of just totally changed right then. It’s good because I wasn’t playing my best, but I still was so close.
“But then, it also hurts a little bit more.”
Down 1-4 in the third, Kerber got a visit from her coach. His advice seemed to work.
“He just said, just relax and just play point by point,” Kerber said. “Just believe in yourself and just go for it. And I just try it, because it was really hard to break her. She really served well today, so I was just trying to focus on every single point like he told me, and I think that was the best advice he gives me.”
Pitting her defensive skills against Keys’ power, Kerber won three straight games to get to 4-4. Serving at 5-5, Keys hit her first double fault of the match to give Kerber a break point, which she cashed in when Keys hit a backhand long. Kerber served out the match from there.
“She was definitely taking more chances with her forehand and moving me around a little bit more,” said Keys, who had 57 unforced errors to just 21 for Kerber. “She was definitely taking time away and being more aggressive.”
The loss was difficult to accept for Keys, who is the third-ranked American behind sisters Serena and Venus Williams, and has to contend with a lot of “next big thing” discussion. She made her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open this year and is eager for the next step.
“The expectation from other people kind of gets on me,” Keys said. “But it’s more like the internal expectation of, you know, I was playing really good tennis in Australia and I wanted to see that again. This week I saw a lot of good tennis, so I’m pretty happy with it.”
She can also be proud of the grit she showed Sunday.
“You know, I could have gone away after the first set,” Keys said. ”I dug deep and still put myself in a position to win.”
Also Sunday, the doubles team of Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis won the Family Circle Cup title with a 6-0, 6-4 victory over Casey Dellacqua and Darija Jurak.
The tournament title was the third straight for Mirza, who moved to No. 1 in doubles ranking, and Hingis, who won Family Circle Cup singles titles in 1997 and 1999.