Pagliaro: Keys Plays Sweet Music Into The Sweet 16

he new lid on Arthur Ashe Stadium provides no ceiling to Madison Keys’ comeback efforts.

The big house was rocking behind Keys’ major revival today.

In a match of explosive shotmaking, Keys roared back from a 1-5 deficit in the decider derailing talented 18-year-old Japanese Naomi Osaka, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3) to advance to the US Open round of 16 for the second straight year.

“I just knew that, you know, if I stayed in the match that I could maybe have a chance to come back and get back in it,” said Keys. “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 called it the biggest comeback of her career. And the No. 8 seed got a major lift from the crowd, who spurred an unlikely comeback from a double-break down in the decider.

Staring down a bleak score line, Keys made a bold decision to attack behind a slice forehand. Sliding around in the front court she stabbed a few volleys at net to ignite her rally.

It was the second great escape of the tournament for Keys, who was two points from elimination her opening-round match before storming past compatriot Alison Riske, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, in a match that concluded at 1:48 a.m.—the latest finish to a US Open women’s match in history.

She backed it up with a pulsating recovery today.

“It’s been dramatic hasn’t it? I’d be okay with a non-dramatic match,” Keys quipped to ESPN’s Pam Shriver afterward.

It was a gut-wrenching loss for Osaka, who put herself in position to pull off the most meaningful win of her young career only to blink a few points from the finish line and pinch back tears on court.

The 81st-ranked Osaka ousted 28th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe in the opener and showed no fear for much of the match today until it came to closing time.

It’s rare to see any player overpower Keys from the backcourt, but Osaka did exactly that blasting bold strikes that reduced one of the game’s heaviest hitters to a retriever at times.

Osaka has practiced with Keys at the Evert Academy in the past and did not look fazed by the Rome runner-up’s jolting power as she broke for a 5-4 second set lead then exploited a couple of Keys errors to serve out the set.

Returning to the court after a bathroom break, Osaka broke to open third set. Matching Keys’ shot-for-shot, Osaka unleashed raw power holding at 30 for 2-0.

Venus Williams, Serena Williams

Fans tried to rouse Keys in the decider, but by then Osaka was reading the American’s serve, stepping in and cranking returns. Keys double faulted into net to donate the second break and a 4-1 lead. When Keys sprayed a wild backhand to fall behind 1-5 she looked down and out.

“I really just kept telling myself, Just try to stay in it,” Keys said. “I just knew I was going to have to step up. It was one of those things where it was either step up or lose, so, you know, I knew I had to stay calm in that moment. I kind of just forced myself to.”

Ultimately, Keys’ experience and decision to rush net in the seventh game helped turn the tide.

Serving for match at 5-2, Osaka could not close as Keys broke back for 3-5.

Serving for it again at 5-4, Osaka was two points from victory when inexperience cost her. She bungled a relatively routine forehand volley and cringed, while Keys prayed.

“It was kind of please God get to the ball or please God go out,” Keys said of her reaction to the volley. “I think she played really well. I think at the end of the match it kind of came down to experience.”

Dragging a forehand wide to drop serve and fall to 5-all Osaka tugged her visor down over her face and looked like she might cry.

The Keys forehand carried her through the tie break.

Smacking successive forehand return winners, Keys earned a pair of mini-breaks for 5-2. A slider serve out wide gave her match points and when Osaka missed the mark with a forehand Keys erupted in a shriek surviving a two hour, seven-minute slugfest.

The first meeting of power players could be a prelude of more meetings to come.

“She has a great serve, great forehand,” Keys said. “I like the way she plays. I think she’s an amazing fighter because she definitely could have given up in the middle of second set and she didn’t…

“There definitely could be (a future rivalry). 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.”

Keys is through to her fourth consecutive Grand Slam round of 16 where she will face two-time US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki for a trip to her first US Open quarterfinal.

“I’ll need to retrieve well and keep good depth on my shots and serve well,” Wozniacki said after dispatching Monica Niculsecu. “I just need to fight for every point.”

While Keys feels empowered by her comeback, she’s aiming to minimize living on the edge moments.

“I think the biggest thing is just I’m never giving up and I’m fighting to the very end,” Keys said. “That’s something to pat myself on the back for. But also definitely going to sit down later and work on some things for the next round because I don’t want to be two points from losing again.

“So really looking forward to trying to have straightforward matches.”

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