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The making of a meltdown: Madison Keys' focus slipped toward Serena

WIMBLEDON -- In just over 20 minutes of play, Madison Keys looked as if her spot in the fourth round at Wimbledon was all but a guarantee. The No. 10 seed held a 5-2 lead over qualifier Evgeniya Rodina and seemed to be in cruise control.

She was so unchallenged at that moment, she found herself thinking about her next match -- a potential meeting with Serena Williams -- and not the player across the net.

"I felt good, was up 5-2, and then I feel like I kind of felt my mind go away, and played a couple of sloppy games," she said after the match. "All of a sudden it's 5-all, and that's when nerves hit me. Then it was just kind of dealing with that.

"I had no idea what my draw was and all of a sudden I came in [to a news conference] the other day, it was like, 'So if you win, then you play [Serena Williams].' And I think that kept being in the back of my mind."

She lost the set 7-5, and went on a nine-game losing streak. She found herself down 4-0 in the second. The 23-year-old looked lost and unnerved; she yelled at her racket and threw her hands up in despair on several occasions. She eventually managed to stage a comeback, however, rattling off seven of the next eight games and forcing a third set. But despite having the momentum, and the crowd very much on her side, Keys' nerves took over again. She lost the third set 6-4 to a player ranked 120th in the world.

"When you're down a set and 4-0, it's a lot easier to be, like, 'Oh, I probably should play better now' and do that," she said. "And then in the third set I think when I was down I would bring my level up and then go up to serve and would get nervous and, you know, just didn't play well enough when it mattered." She's not the first of the top-ranked players to fall victim to nerves this week at Wimbledon. In fact, by the end of Friday's play at the All England Club, just two of the top 10 seeds remain in the women's draw (No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 7 KarolĂ­na Pliskova). Some of her peers were outplayed, some just couldn't get themselves going, and some let themselves get too far down to ever stage a proper comeback. But Keys' issue was clear and she simply seemed unable to get out of her own head.

Chris Evert, the 18-time Grand Slam champion and current ESPN analyst, wasn't surprised Keys' mind started to drift initially, but was shocked at how long she let it continue.

"I think it's human to think ahead to that when things are going so easily like they were," she said. "It's natural to relax for a minute, and think ahead to a match like [facing Serena]. That's understandable, but when you start to feel your mind wandering, you have to fight to get it back, right then. I don't know why it took her five games. It should just take a point or two to focus and get back in the moment.

"The match was on her racket. She played really well at first to get it to 5-2 so I was surprised she just couldn't get that back. She's had enough experience in tough matches to know how to get that back. The first and second set aren't all that puzzling to me -- she's human, she got nervous, she got tight, she fought back. But to not carry any of that momentum into the third set was puzzling."

Keys made 48 unforced errors on the day, compared to 11 for Rodina. She was clearly flustered and unable to play her brand of power tennis. But she never appeared to make any adjustments or change her strategy. She continued to overhit the ball, rack up the errors, and become visibly more frustrated, at one point trying to strike her racket on her knee and missing that target as well.

Serena Williams, the opponent she had hoped to be playing on Monday, had no such issues in her match against Kristina Mladenovic on Friday. Down 5-3 in the first, with Mladenovic serving for the set, Williams went on a six-game run, taking the set and a break in the second. While it remained a competitive match, a composed Williams didn't lose focus and won a tiebreak in the second to clinch the victory.

No. 1 seed Halep had a similar match against Zheng Saisai on Thursday -- trailing 5-3 in the first before winning the next 10 games and clinching the win without allowing Zheng a sliver of a chance to get back into it.

"This game is all mental," said Evert. "There's a lot of great talent out there -- you're not in this tournament unless you're a great player -- but what makes the difference is what's between the ears. Today was a great example with Serena, she's down, she wins six games in a row. Or Halep [on Thursday].

"They know how to lift the level when they're losing and they also know how to close a match when they're ahead. It's that simple."

Many players work with sports psychologists to deal with challenging moments on the court. Evert isn't sure that's necessary for Keys, but does think she should replicate Friday's scenario in practice as much as possible and work on what to do when she's down, and being comfortable and confident in those situations.

Keys admitted she wasn't entirely sure how she would combat such nerves the next time they flared up, but knew she at least would handle them differently.

"I think the biggest thing is having a plan for when you feel it happening and catching it quicker," said Keys. "It's a lot easier to catch it if it's two points and not two games. I think the biggest thing is talking to my team and just being really open and honest, and I think together we can come up with a plan that if I feel myself going that way, then it's just something that I immediately do."

And she definitely won't let herself overlook any opponent again.