CHARLESTON, S.C. -- No. 20 Madison Keys advanced to her first WTA final of the season after defeating Lucie Hradecka 6-1, 6-4 Saturday at the Family Circle Cup. It is Keys' second career final and her first on clay, her worst surface. Asked whether she expected to make the final this week, Keys was honest. "No."
"I mean, it's kind of surprising," the 20-year-old said. "I don't think the grass final [in Eastbourne last year] surprised people as much, but [I'm] just really happy. I think it's pretty good transition from hard court to clay court. And hopefully I can just keep this up and it'll just continue on to the red clay."
After struggling on the hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami, Keys has been completely dominant in Charleston. She heads into the final without the loss of a set, losing more than two games in a single set just once. Her powerful serve has not been broken once and she's saved all seven break points she's faced.
Keys has posted a positive winner to unforced error differential in all four of her matches this weeks, hitting a cumulative 116 winners to just 62 unforced errors. That's an astounding +54 differential. The context of these numbers is important. After the top half of the draw fell apart with a series of early upsets, three of Keys' four opponents have been qualifiers ranked outside the Top 100. The highest ranked player she's faced was No. 66 Lauren Davis.
Despite the weak competition, Keys has seen this week how effective her style of game can be on the surface. She may not be battling it out for the French Open anytime soon, but she's learning her power game can translate to all surfaces. On Monday she will rise to a career-high No. 17 in the WTA rankings, regardless of Sunday's outcome.
"I mean it's definitely I can play on clay, but then again, green clay and red clay are very different," Keys said. "So it's still just working on my game and working on being more consistent and playing the right shots, and whether it's on grass, hard court, clouds, whatever, it has to be the same thing."
Keys will get a significant step up in competition in the Sunday's final, where she'll play No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber. The German snapped defending champion Andrea Petkovic's 11-match win streak in Charleston, winning 6-4, 6-4. With that Kerber finds herself in a clay final for the first time in five years, which is also surprising. The former top 10 stalwart has had a difficult start to the season and has seen her ranking slide down to No. 16.
"I think I start to believe in myself again," Kerber said. "I'm playing very well in the last three years. I was in the top 10, and I think everybody saw that I'm a really consistent player. In tennis you have sometimes up and downs, and now I think I'm feeling good again."
Sunday's final will be the fourth meeting between Keys and Kerber and the second straight in a final. The two squared off last year in the final of the Aegon International in Eastbourne, England. Keys won 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 to capture her first career title.
Said Keys about that final: "I think she was definitely taking time away. She was able to step in and get me on the move, and I think the whole third set was who could get ahead in the point first."
The final will pit Keys' high-octane game against Kerber's gritty counter-punching. The German rallied from 1-5 down in the first set and saved set points in both sets to beat Irina Camelia Begu 7-5, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. Against the more offensive-minded Petkovic, Kerber's defense was superb. She ran down everything to force Petkovic to hit extra balls and the top-ranked German grew frustrated. Her game will test Keys' patience and decision-making. She also needs her serve to be as good as it's been all week.
Keys admitted she struggled to handle Kerber's swinging lefty-serve in Eastbourne. "It'll be a tough match, but at the end of the day I'm more concerned about myself," Keys said. "I've been really happy with what I've been doing, and tomorrow, win or lose, if I can walk off the court and think I've improved then that's a good day."