Serena Williams chose an excellent moment to claim her first title of the season, and thus head into next week’s French Open as a worthy favourite.
Steffi Graf’s long-standing record of 22 grand slams can rarely have been more under threat.
Williams has been on her game throughout the BNL Internazionali d’Italia, lifting the title without even dropping a set. But Madison Keys did give her a stern examination before slipping to a 7-6, 6-3 defeat.
“I’m so proud of you,” said Williams to her compatriot as they shook hands at the net. “You’re a future No. 1 for sure.”
At 21, Keys is seen as a champion in waiting in the same way as Nick Kyrgios – a close contemporary in age and even ranking. And this week has produced her best results since her run to the semi-finals of the 2015 Australian Open, which also ended in a defeat at Williams’s hands.
Keys uses her rangy physique to take long, flourishing swings at the ball.
When she connects, she hits it even harder than Williams. But her potential is still being undermined by too many miscues and a habit of entering a mental tailspin after a couple of shots go awry. Her focus has improved significantly in Rome, however – a change she ascribes to her new coach Thomas Hogstedt, who previously worked with Maria Sharapova.
Sunday was more about Williams, though. After high-profile losses in the finals of Indian Wells and the Australian Open, she had then withdrawn from the recent Madrid event, citing illness. It was tempting, at that point, to question her appetite for the tour itself. But she has returned here in fine form and strong physical shape, taking command once again as her rivals continue to struggle for consistency.
In the opening moments of today’s final, Williams needed all her fortitude. She was broken to love in her opening service game, then saw Keys rifle down a series of 115mph serves to hold for 2-0. But she started to grind out points, not perhaps playing at her electric best, but simply relying on the fact that she has every shot in the book as well as mountains of big-game experience.
Against Keys, a huge talent who still has a few kinks in her game, solidity was enough.
Asked about the nine-month gap since her last title at Cincinnati last year, Williams said: “It’s only four tournaments. It’s not like I was playing every week. I’m feeling pretty fit. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to the French Open.”
Copyright 2016 IAR Magazine