CHARLESTON, S.C. — No. 16 Angelique Kerber rallied from 1-4 down in the third set to beat No. 20 Madison Keys 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 and win the Family Circle Cup. The title is her first since 2013, the fourth of her career, and the first on clay.
Kerber's belief in herself was unshaken despite a dismal start to the season. A regular in the Top 10 for the last three years, she had not won back-to-back matches since making the semifinals in Sydney in January. Opening round losses at the Australian Open, Antwerp, Doha, and Indian Wells left her on the verge of falling out the Top 20.
The conventional wisdom was that Kerber was adrift in a choppy sea, battered about by pressure and expectations. Instead of dwelling on her poor form, Kerber, a player who is known to get negative with herself, opted to see the bigger picture. She saw the first three months of the season as nothing more than a minor blip in her career. This wasn't the norm. The norm was just around the corner. She was right.
In a match of contrasting styles, Kerber and Keys played one of the best WTA matches of the season. The 20-year-old American had a dominant week in Charleston and she had yet to drop her serve once. But on a cooler day in windy conditions, Keys came out nervous and struggled to hit through both the court and Kerber. She started the match with a string of unforced errors to give away a break in the first game. She fought valiantly to try and get back into the set but couldn't find a way to break Kerber. The two played a long seven-deuce game at 2-3 but Keys failed to convert one of three break points and Kerber raced away with the set.
Keys' nerves and game settled down in the second set. Playing in her second WTA final and first of the season, she stepped in to hit the ball even bigger. Her backhand was particularly effective against the left-handed Kerber, and she pounded the Kerber forehand corner to open up the court. Her serving improved as well, firing four aces and winning 83 percent of her first serve (she won 37 percent in the first set) and 58 percent of her second serve. Kerber earned just one break point in the set, which Keys saved, and the American made her move in the 10th game, breaking to take the set and force a third.
The final set was a see-saw affair. Keys was able to get a break and build a 4-1 lead before Kerber stormed back with a smart change in tactics. Instead of slipping into baseline rallies and battling to withstand Keys' power, Kerber suddenly employed more variety. She pulled Keys into the net repeatedly with dropshots, exploiting the American's movement and inexperience at the net, and passed with ease.
"She hits really great drop shots," Keys said. "I was actually kind of surprised that they weren't happening in the first and second set as often. And then in the third I was like, yeah, there they are."
Keys was rattled. Kerber reeled off three straight games to get back on serve to 4-all and forced Keys to save two break points in a lengthy service game to hold. But then, serving at 5-5 with a 40-0 lead, Keys couldn't close the game. Kerber broke and then served out the match, snapping a four match losing streak in tournament finals.
A clearly disappointed Keys said it stung to come so close only to fall just short. "It was a game here or there," she said. And I mean at the end she just didn't make any mistakes, and I started making a couple more, and that was really the match."
"I was up 4-1, but at the same time it's one break, and she completely lifted her level, and it kind of just totally changed right then. But, I mean, it's good because I wasn't playing my best, but I was so close. But then it also hurts a little bit more."
Kerber lost to Keys last year in the final in Eastbourne and said she saw improvements in her game today. "I think she is more a consistent player right now and she is going for it. I think she is also very confident right now."
Said Keys: "I mean the expectation from other people kind of gets on me, but it's more like the internal expectation. I was playing really good tennis in Australia and I wanted to see that again. This week I saw a lot of good tennis. So I'm pretty happy with it."
Keys, who will rise to a career-high No. 17 on Monday, will return to Los Angeles to train with coaches Lindsay Davenport and Jon Leach until her next tournament at the Madrid Open. Kerber heads to Russia with hopes of getting the Germans back into the Fed Cup final.
"I think it was very important for me this week, and I will go there with a lot of confidence right now," Kerber said. "I'm looking forward to the week. It's always nice with the girls, and I hope we will [have] a very successful weekend in Sochi."