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US Open - Madison Keys vs Kaia Kanepi preview

Hannah Wilks in Tennis 6 Sep 2017

Madison Keys takes on Kaia Kanepi tonight in the quarter-finals of the 2017 US Open.

One of four American women to make the quarterfinals, something which hasn’t been seen at the US Open since 2002, Keys is trying to make her second Grand Slam semifinal in New York – but she must be wary of Kanepi, the qualifier who is on a dramatic run of her own.

It’s been said before, but on the women’s side this US Open really has been all about comebacks, with so many of the women highlighting the later stages – Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, Anastasija Sevastova – having their recent careers defined by adversity. Madison Keys and Kaia Kanepi are no exception.

Having played through 2016 in excruciating pain from wrist tendonitis even while she recorded the best season of her career, which included winning Birmingham, finishing runner-up in Rome and Montreal, a semifinal in Beijing, cracking the top 10 and qualifying for the WTA Finals Singapore for the first time, Keys had to address her injury issues and took the decision to miss the Australian Open and the start of the season to have surgery on the wrist. Returning in March at Indian Wells, Keys struggled for wins and with ongoing pain and after going 4-6 between her comeback and the French Open, opted for another surgery to free a trapped nerve and clean up some scar tissue. It clouded her Wimbledon campaign – after rushing to be fit she lost in the second round to Camila Giorgi – but it clearly did the trick in a larger sense. Pain-free, reunited with former coach Lindsay Davenport, Keys played joyful, crushing tennis to claim the Bank of the West Classic title in Stanford – beating the likes of Garbine Muguruza and CoCo Vandeweghe – and although she failed to convert three match points on Muguruza in Cincinnati and lost to her, she’s been shining at the US Open, beating Elise Mertens and Tatjana Maria before battling through two three-set, late-night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Against Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina, Keys came back from dropping the first set for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 win that became the second-latest finish for a women’s singles match at the US Open – Keys holds the record for the latest finish as well, at 1.48 a.m. Against fourth seed Elina Svitolina in the round of 16, once again a night match on Arthur Ashe, Keys didn’t test the record-keepers again but she did have to work extremely hard for the win. Svitolina has been one of the finest, most improved and most consistent players of the season, and the Ukrainian roared back after Keys took the first set in a tie break to dominate the second set. Keys had to change up her tactics and really commit to attacking the net, even after she surrendered the first break of the third set after some hard-fought games, to ultimately level the decider and then break Svitolina for the win, 7-6(2), 1-6, 6-4.

‘It's definitely more than just a win,’ Keys concluded afterwards.

‘So often a match like that could have gone really quick for me, and I could have lost that third set fairly easy, come off and been really disappointed. So the fact that I dug deep and I figured things out, you know, I came out with a win means a lot to me. More than that, it just proves how deep I can dig and how hard I can fight.’

Keys looks poised now to make a first US Open semifinal – but that doesn’t mean that her next opponent, Kaia Kanepi, should be underestimated.

Don’t be misled by the ‘Q’ next to Kanepi’s name. She did qualify, but the Estonian is a former world no. 15 who has made not one, not two but five previous Grand Slam quarterfinals, two at Wimbledon, two at the French Open and one at the US Open back in 2010 when she beat then-fourth seed Jelena Jankovic before losing to Vera Zvonareva, who would make the final that year. 

Kaia Kanepi (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Kanepi’s career has been full of injury issues and enforced breaks from competition, but the one she has recently returned from was a very serious and potentially career-ending one. Kanepi played just six events in 2016 and was effectively off tour for two years while she struggled with the energy-sapping Epstein-Barr virus and plantar fasciitis in both feet. Kanepi said she considered quitting tennis altogether and didn’t even have the energy or motivation to rehab her foot injuries, exploring other career possibilities like taking an ice-driving course and serving as a training partner for a local discus thrower – but she decided that she missed the adrenaline and competition of tennis and played her first tournament for a year, the ITF Essen $25k, in June, courtesy of a wildcard and ranked world no. 630. She won it. 

Kanepi failed to qualify for Wimbledon or Bucharest, but won another ITF $25k in Parnu at the end of July and lifted her ranking to its current world no. 421. Entering US Open qualifying, she beat Nina Stojanovic, 30th seed Louisa Chirico and top seed Su-Wei Hsieh to make the main draw. In the first round, she came back from being bageled to beat Francesca Schiavone in three, then defeated former semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer in straight sets before out-hitting Naomi Osaka, the explosive youngster who had beaten defending champion Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. In the fourth round, her more or less flawless display of big power tennis utterly demoralized Daria Kasatkina, the young Russian who had beaten Jelena Ostapenko in the previous round, 6-4, 6-4 to make the sixth Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career.

Kanepi has never won a Grand Slam quarterfinal, but she has absolutely nothing to lose in this one; she didn’t expect herself to get this far, and has absolutely no expectations or pressure on her shoulders. The same isn’t true of Keys, and in a match between two power players, the ability to swing freely and really go for your shots could be – no pun intended – key.

Keys and Kanepi have played just once before, on clay in Madrid in 2015 when Kanepi won 6-4, 6-3. Admittedly clay is a much better surface for her than it is for Keys, but Kanepi is certainly an unbelievably dangerous player with little to lose. Keys has her work cut out for her if she wants to reach the semifinals of the US Open.  

Keys vs Kanepi is scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium at 7pm local/12am BST.


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US Open - Madison Keys vs Kaia Kanepi preview

Madison Keys takes on Kaia Kanepi tonight in the quarter-finals of the 2017 US Open.

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