US Open 2018

US Open 2018: Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka head to quarter-finals

Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka are both through to the quarter-finals of the US Open in New York

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There has never been any doubting the talent of Madison Keys. She won her first title while still a teenager at Eastbourne in 2014, and made the semis of the Australian Open and the quarters at Wimbledon in 2015.

She then won her second title in 2016, and made two big finals in Rome and Montreal—showing her precocious and elegant ability on all three surfaces—breaking into the top 10 into the bargain.

But despite her youthful years, she hit injury problems at the end of that season, resorted to wrist surgery, and did not return until Indian Wells last year. She had another minor procedure before Wimbledon, so by the time she hit the North American courts again, she was ranked down at 21. But her form picked up with a vengeance as she headed to the Stanford title.

Even so, most were not prepared for such an early breakthrough on the biggest stage, at the US Open where she made it all the way to the final. There, she came up against good friend and compatriot—and fellow returner from surgery—Sloane Stephens, who stormed to the title.

Stephens, seeded No3 here, took up her spot in the quarter-finals yesterday, so it remained possible that the same pair could contest the title again come final Saturday. There were perhaps two barriers to Keys’ ambitions, however. First, she had played only two tournaments since reaching the semis of the French Open, at Wimbledon and Cincinnati, and she was forced to withdraw from San Jose with wrist pain.

Second, she was up against one of the fittest and most determined women on the tour, Dominika Cibulkova, a former Major finalist, a winner of the WTA Finals, and fresh from victory over Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber in the third round. And although Cibulkova had played three straight three-setters, she was expected to cope comfortably with the hot and oppressive weather that returned to Flushing Meadows for Labor Day.

These were, indeed, labouring conditions, beginning on the blisteringly hot Arthur Ashe in the heat of midday. And then there was the extreme shadow that bisects the court under the overhanging, echoing roof of this vast arena.

But if there was one thing working in Keys’ favour, aside from the home crowd, it was her past record, a 4-0 advantage—plus seven inches in height.

Keys’ aggressive game was soon in evidence, as after a quick hold of serve, she pressed Cibulkova hard through eight deuces and four break points. Finally, after 14 minutes, she converted her fifth break point, 2-0.

And for all Cibulkova’s deceptive power and attacking mindset, Keys held sway with her big strikes and smart serving high to the 5ft3in Slovakian woman’s backhand. She broke again in the sixth and served out the set, 6-1.

She broke immediately in the second set, too, but Cibulkova is not one to go down without a fight. She earned her first break point of the match, and thumped a return of serve winner to square things up, 2-2.

Cibulkova coped admirably with her high ball-toss into the sun, and maintained a first-serve percentage at well over 75 percent. But Keys was onto it too fast and too effectively, and broke again, holding for 5-3. One more break, and she was into the quarter-finals in just 76 minutes, with 25 winners to only 15 errors to her name.

She will next play either 2006 champion Maria Sharapova or Carla Suárez Navarro. The Spaniard would face not only a 4-1 deficit in previous matches but one other extraordinary statistic: Sharapova had a perfect 22-0 night-match record at Flushing Meadows—and this would be her fourth night session of the 2018 tournament.

Keys is still just 23, but already she has made the quarters of six Majors since that semi run in Australia a full three and a half years ago, despite missing such a long stretch after surgery in the early stages of 2017.

But what has stood out at this year’s US Open is the rise of a new band of players ready to snap at the heels of the likes of Keys, fellow 23-year-old Elina Svitolina, and even 22-year-olds Ashleigh Barty and Elise Mertens—all seeded, and all through to the fourth round in New York.

Keys was the youngest to reach the quarters, but not for long. Soon, it was the turn of the 20-year-olds, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenko.

The two women, same age, same height, ranked just one place apart, had never met before on the main tour, and had never made the fourth round of the US Open, either. Sabalenka was seeded for the first time at a Major, and her three wins to get to the fourth round were her first ever in the main draw in New York.

What is more, her form coming into the tournament was impressive: a semi-finalist in Cincinnati and winner in New Haven. On the grass of Eastbourne, she made her first Premier final, and via wins over the likes of Mertens and Pliskova.

Osaka, a veteran of the US Open by Sabalenka’s standards, had made the third round in her last two visits, and really announced her arrival at the top table with victory at Indian Wells in March. And judging from her previous three matches, in which she conceded a total of seven games, she was feeling right at home again.

She stormed through the first set against Sabalenka in similar style, breaking twice to take the first set, 6-3, but the Belarusian came back at the Japanese woman also to break twice, helped by some formidable serving—she dropped just five points on serve, 6-2.

Perhaps predictably in this first of what may become a long-term rivalry in the coming years, neither wanted to give way, and with a break apiece and at 4-4 in the decider, they had 77 points each.

Osaka threw down the gauntlet with a love hold for 5-4, and then worked 0-40 against the Sabalenka serve for three match points. The Belarusian saved them all, but could not convert a game point. Instead, a blistering return of serve from Osaka brought up another match point, and she was handed victory via a double fault.

But take nothing away from the Japanese woman: she dug deep to earn a place in her first Major quarter-final, where she will meet an unseeded player in either Lesia Tsurenko or the youngest remaining woman in the draw, 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova.

• Carla Suarez Navarro beat Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3, while Lesia Tsurenko beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-2

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