Madison Keys served up further warning of her burgeoning potential as the American teenager powered her way past Heather Watson to reach her first career WTA final at the AEGON International.
Keys was far too strong for Watson, at one point firing down a 123mph ace on her way to a 6-3 6-1 victory in just 62 minutes which sealed a meeting with fifth seed Angelique Kerber in Saturday’s final.
The 19-year-old instantly settled after taking an early break and had the Eastbourne crowd gasping in disbelief as she repeatedly smacked her booming forehand past a helpless Watson to take the first set. The Brit dropped serve again early in the second set and the match quickly raced away from her, Keys sealing victory with a powerful return which Watson could only net in response.
It was three years ago in Eastbourne that Keys played for the first time on a grass court in the Maureen Connelly Challenge Trophy, a yearly competition between the best juniors of Britain and America. On Saturday, she has the chance to win her first tour title on a surface she admits she has come to love, and the crowd can expect to see more of the same all-out attack.
Keys, the world No. 47, said: “I'm going to walk on with some nerves, but at the same time I'm just going to go for it, first final and I'm playing against someone who has won multiple titles already. Really, I have nothing to lose.”
Despite a semi-final run which guarantees her a return to the top 60, Watson was initially upset after such a beating before later hailing Keys as the toughest opponent she has ever played. The Brit will quickly put the loss behind her and take the positives from a good week ahead of her first-round match at Wimbledon against Ajla Tomljanovic on Tuesday.
Watson said: “I feel that of all the WTA matches I have ever played, ITF, anything, I think today was against my toughest opponent ever. I think she played really, really well, massive serve, massive groundstrokes.”
Kerber had earlier clinched her place in the final after a thrilling match against Caroline Wozniacki, the German coming out on top 3-6 7-6(3) 6-3 after two hours and 39 minutes. Kerber made a number of errors in the first set but got it together and fought back for a chance to win her first title since Linz last October.
The world No.9 is all too aware of the danger Keys poses, although she has won in straight sets in both of their previous meetings, including in Sydney earlier this year. The final also gives Kerber another shot at the Eastbourne title which she was so close to claiming two years, failing to convert any of five match points against Tamira Paszek.
Kerber said: “I will be not thinking about that tomorrow. That was like two years ago and I think I [have] improved my game. It's a new final. It's a new game tomorrow.
“[Keys is] a dangerous opponent for sure. She [has] played very tough here and good matches. She's a young, talented player. She has a great serve and she's playing aggressive.”
Wozniacki left the English south coast feeling that it should have been her in the final after being up 6-3 2-0 and also 3-1 ahead in the second set tiebreak. However, her week by the seaside has clearly done her a lot of good after her recent split with fiancé Rory McIlroy with the Dane in a positive mood ahead of her opening match at Wimbledon against Shahar Peer on Monday.
Wozniacki said: “I'm very happy with where I am at the moment.
“Sometimes life throws you things that you didn't expect, but you just have to embrace it and move forward. I'm in a good place right now.”
No matter what happens in the men’s final, Richard Gasquet is another player who will head to Wimbledon on Saturday evening delighted with his week. After a two-month absence earlier this year with a back injury, the top seed is pain-free and playing well as he eased past Denis Istomin 6-4 6-2.
Gasquet said: “I need to play every day. That’s why I’m very happy. I have no injuries, no pain. It’s important for me.
“Now I can enjoy the final. I know I have worked a lot to come back from my physical condition and everything.”
Gasquet will be confident against defending champion Feliciano Lopez, who won twice in one day against Jeremy Chardy and Sam Querrey to book his place in the final. Gasquet leads their head-to-head 5-0, although they have never played on grass and this is the Spaniard’s second consecutive final on the surface after finishing runner-up at Queen’s last week.
Although the home crowd were disappointed with Watson’s semi-final defeat, they at least had something to cheer as Brit Dominic Inglot and his Filipino partner Treat Huey claimed their third ATP title together with a 7-5 5-7 [10-8] victory over No. 1 seeds Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares in the men’s doubles final.
Kerber’s match with Wozniacki was the perfect way to start the day on Centre Court with the German’s counterpunching style and the Dane’s ever-steady defence making for a great battle.
Kerber said: “We had such tough battles in the past and [again] today.
"You know before you walk on court it will be a tough one. You will run a lot, because we had such long rallies also, so [it is] just preparation with your mind to be there every single point and just try to play your best tennis against her.”
“Did I? Hmm. That's pretty good.” – Madison Keys reacts as she finds out in the post-match press conference that she hit a 123mph ace during her victory over Heather Watson.
“I just messaged her and asked her if she wanted to play. She said yes. I said, ‘oh, brilliant’.” – Heather Watson was a tad surprised when Eugenie Bouchard accepted her offer to play doubles together at Wimbledon.
Madison Keys was stopped by a policeman as she left the media centre, but it was for good reason as all the local officer wanted was his tennis ball signed before he allowed her on her way.
Women's singles final: Angelique Kerber v Madison Keys
Men's singles final: Richard Gasquet v Feliciano Lopez
Women's doubles final: Hao-Ching Chan and Yung-Jan Chan v Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta
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