Madison Keys is not just the last American woman standing as the Australian Open enters the second week, she's standing tall and casting a long shadow over the rest of the draw.
It isn't just that Keys has survived. The 22-year-old who froze up and absorbed a painful beating at the hands of her lifelong friend, Sloane Stephens, in the US Open final in September has put an indelible stamp on the year's first major.
On Monday in Melbourne, Australia, she put on a stunning display of power tennis that ruined No. 8 seed Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-2 in just 1 hour, 8 minutes. Keys hasn't lost a set and has spent a grand total of just 4 hours, 10 minutes on the court in four matches.
"I'm excited," Keys said in her on-court interview, referring to her return to the tournament she missed last year because of surgery on her injured left wrist. She was clearly struggling to curb her emotions. When pressed she added that having to endure the event sitting on her sofa made her miss the sport. She said she saw only a handful of matches last year because, "Watching really made me sad."
Monday was a happier time for sure. From 2-2 in the first set, Keys reeled off seven of eight games, thanks mostly to a combination of serve and return power rivaled only by a someone named Serena Williams. Keys and Garcia are both 5-foot-10, but Keys is slightly more athletic, and she generates superior racket head speed. Opponents can feel her serve hit the court down in their molars.
But even when Keys' serve went astray late in the match with Garcia, her return did not. She just continued to blast returns that caught Garcia lunging in futility or merely looking like a baffled batter taking a strike. Garcia won just 51 percent of her first-serve points, and 29 percent of her second deliveries. She held serve just three times in the match. Keys, who next plays Angelique Kerber, cracked nine aces to just one by the Frenchwoman. Keys won the winners derby 32-9.
Keys is advancing her own cause, but her scintillating performance has also helped salve the pain of a dismal showing in Melbourne by the vast majority of U.S. players. Much was expected, especially from an American contingent that stoked the hopes of fans when four U.S. women made the semifinals at the 2017 US Open.
Williams looked rusty, and she was short of match play. Who could blame her, though, at 37 years of age? Vandeweghe cursed a blue streak over a missing banana as she spiraled to a loss. Stephens won a set then faded away. Ever the philosopher, she later told the media, "It's unfortunate."
The bright spots? The success enjoyed by a trio of ATP journeymen who ended up punching above their weight class: Mackenzie McDonald, Ryan Harrison and Tennys Sandgren. Also, WTA Lucky Loser Bernarda Pera lasted through two rounds for the U.S., as did Lauren Davis, who succumbed to top seed Simona Halep only after a heroic 3 hours, 44 minutes of resistance.
While Davis' toenails were bleeding and about to fall off after that one, after four rounds, it's doubtful Keys would even need a pedicure. She says she's in perhaps the best shape of her life after taking off the bulk of the fall season, when she did some fitness work but did not practice tennis at all. Her wrist is fully healed. She's caught up to herself.
"I've had a lot of random, rough injuries that prevent good offseasons and all of that," Keys told reporters in Melbourne early last week. "Having such a great base now, being able to do rehab, I definitely feel very strong and fit and ready to play a full season."