Keys in command
to level Fed Cup tie vs. Australia
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 9, 2019
Asheville, N.C. – Madison Keys left no doubt against Kimberly Birrell, as her power and quality overwhelmed the surprise No. 2 singles selection for Team Australia, 6-2, 6-2. After Sonya Kenin fell to Ashleigh Barty in the tie's opener at the Asheville's U.S. Cellular Center, Keys righted the ship with a dominant performance that drew the U.S. level at 1-all after Day 1 in this Fed Cup World Group opening-round tie.
Keys, the world No. 17, entered the match as a heavy favorite against an opponent 140 spots below her in the WTA Rankings, but Birrell started strong, riding the wave of Barty’s earlier victory. She pushed the American to deuce on two of the match’s first three games, but never earned a game point in that stretch, as Keys dominated the crucial moments.
“My biggest focus was getting out there and getting a good start, obviously wanting to get a point for Team USA,” she said. ADVERTISEMENT “After Sonya came back and fought her absolute hardest, I knew even though we didn’t get the win, we definitely had the crowd.”
The threat of a 2-0 deficit had been looming, but Keys’ razor-sharp performance quickly allayed any such fears, as she held to 15 twice for a 5-2 lead. She put an exclamation point on the opener by winning the set’s final five points, digging out of a 40-love hole to seal her second break of the set.
“The weight behind [Keys’] shot was definitely different to anything I’ve really felt before,” Birrell reflected. “I think there’s a big difference between Top-100 players, Top-50 players, then the next tier up … You just get very few opportunities.”
The American again raced out to 3-0 lead in set two, this time dropping just four points in three straightforward games. It was one-way traffic and two break points could have made it 4-0, until the Aussie fought back, putting away a touch volley in one of the points of the match to get back in the game.
Birrell won four points in a row to take that particular service game, but it was her only hold of the set, as Keys opened up a 5-1 lead. Then, like Kenin in the earlier match, Birrell turned it on with her back against the wall. The Aussie broke Keys at love—her only break of the match—and had a point for 5-3 in her ensuing service game.
That’s when Keys’ experience shined through, as she reset to win the final three points of the afternoon, a match-point forehand winner getting Team USA on the board at the close of Day 1.
She will expect a sterner test from Australian No. 1 Barty on Sunday, as the pair will kick off Day 2 with the headline match of the weekend.
“Ashleigh is going to be incredibly tough,” said Keys. “She’s playing some of the best tennis and she’s going to compete, on top of that.”
Aussie captain Alicia Molik is expecting a big-hitting battle when the two square off on Sunday.
“I think they’re both going to really push and stretch each other,” she said. “They’re going to bring out the best in each other. That’s what you want on Day 2, the No. 1s going at it. It’s going to be really interesting.”
And while Molik and the Aussies dismissed any American momentum heading into Sunday—“It’s 1-all,” chimed Birrell—U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi was happy to claim the intangible edge.
“Well, we’re going to go with it,” she said with a smile, responding to a question about momentum carrying over in the tie. “We won the last match today. We’re going to come out here and hopefully take that momentum into tomorrow.”
Both captains have the option of substituting any of their nominations for tomorrow, though the Keys-Barty matchup of No. 1s is unlikely to change, even more so after both were victorious on Saturday. As it stands, the fourth rubber will pit Kenin against Birrell, with a potentially decisive fifth rubber featuring the American doubles pairing of Danielle Collins and Nicole Melichar against Barty and Daria Gavrilova.
Sunday’s play will again begin at 1 p.m. ET, with Tennis Channel Center Court providing live national coverage and ABC WLOS-40 carrying local Asheville coverage.