NEW YORK — Madison Keys has had success at the U.S. Open before, finishing as the runner-up in 2017 and advancing to the semifinals a year later. She knows what it’s like to enter the tournament with great expectations.
But ahead of this year’s event, it was countrywomen like Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula who were coming in hot and hogging all the headlines, both of them perhaps ready to challenge for the first major title of their respective careers. Keys, meanwhile, began this year’s U.S. Open as the No. 17 seed, same as her world ranking.
Perhaps as a result, Keys is thriving. At least that’s how she sees it. She impressively rolled over a noticeably off Pegula in straight sets on Monday, 6-1, 6-3, to advance to the quarterfinals, her first time advancing that far at the year’s final Slam since that 2018 semifinal run.
While it was Pegula who came in on a roll, including a victory at the National Bank Open in Montreal last month, it was Keys who was the far better player at a roofed-in Arthur Ashe Stadium on this day.
“The past couple of years, I’ve come in and maybe not had the run I wanted to have,” said Keys, who was knocked out in the third round last year and the first round in 2021. “This year (I’ve) been honestly just trying to have no expectations, and just go out and play tennis and focus on that. Luckily, I’m in the quarterfinals here.”
Keys was dominant from the outset, breaking Pegula in the first game and essentially never looking back. She broke Pegula for a second time to go up 5-1, and then served out the first set.
In the second, Keys took a 3-2 lead when she broke Pegula for a third time. Pegula broke her back right away — just the second service game Keys has lost in the tournament — but Keys responded to tie the set, 3-3, before going on to close out the match in a tidy one hour and one minute.
Pegula, the No. 3 seed and top-ranked American, was visibly annoyed at times throughout the match. She dropped her racket in frustration after firing a backhand into the net in the second set and later fired a ball into the back wall display.
She had reason to be disappointed in herself. She managed to make just 55 percent of her first serves, won just 35 percent of her second-serve points and committed 20 unforced errors to just six winners.
Keys was much more on top of her game, blasting 21 winners to 19 unforced errors. She had a first-serve percentage of 71 and won 77 percent of those points.
“I feel like today (I) was just really focused on trying to keep rallies short just because Jess is so good,” Keys said, “and the longer the rally gets, the better Jess seems to get. Was really just trying to focus on hitting the best ball I could the first one or two balls of the rallies.”
That rang true, as Keys won 44 of the 74 points on rallies that lasted four or fewer points.
If Keys is to win her first Grand Slam title here, six years after losing to Sloane Stephens in an all-American final, the road won’t be easy. Keys will face 2023 Wimbledon champ Marketa Vondrousova, the No. 9 seed, in Wednesday’s quarterfinals after Vondrousova downed 21-year-old Ohio native Peyton Stearns — the last unseeded player remaining in the draw — on Monday, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2.
“I think she has a unique style because she balances being a little bit trickier and things like that, but also has some pretty good power and finesse,” Keys said.
If Keys gets past Vondrousova, this year’s Australian Open champion and No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka or three-time major finalist and No. 5 seed Ons Jabeur could be waiting in the semifinal. Gauff — the 19-year-old, sixth-seeded American phenom picked by many to win the tournament — could be the opponent in the final.
As for Pegula, the 29-year-old Buffalo native has still never advanced past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam. She entered this year’s U.S. Open having reached major quarterfinals six times in the past three years.
It’s been a strong U.S. Open for the American contingent. There were four U.S. players remaining in each the men’s and women’s singles draws when the fourth round began. On the men’s side, No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz, No. 10 seed Frances Tiafoe and unseeded Ben Shelton all advanced to the quarterfinals. No American man has won the singles tournament since Andy Roddick in 2003. Keys and Gauff, who won on Sunday afternoon, are now the only American women remaining. They are both attempting to become the first American to win the women’s title here since that Stephens victory over Keys in 2017.
One year after that loss, it was Naomi Osaka who knocked Keys out of the semis, denying her a chance to return to the final. Some years later, she’s in a different headspace now than she was then. And it’s helping to fuel her success.
“Mental health is definitely a lot better when I’m playing with lower expectations and not putting as much pressure on myself,” Keys said, “and just kind of having a better approach to the game.”
Coco Gauff beats Caroline Wozniacki — and earns her praise — at U.S. Open
(Top photo: Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images)