Madison Keys' eyes were clear and steely last week in Stanford, California, at the Bank of the West Classic, where she overpowered a succession of opponents with that walloping serve and aggressive forehand to win her first title on U.S. soil.
It was just in the nick of time. The players are on the road to the US Open now, and Keys, 22, has long been touted as the natural successor to the Williams sisters. But those hopes were put on hold when a left wrist injury, which ultimately required two surgeries, kept Keys from playing this year until March.
"It hasn't been the easiest season," Keys told reporters Sunday after she defeated fellow American slugger CoCo Vandeweghe for the Bank of the West title. It was a reference to time missed due to her injury. But she added that she's confident in her game now. She feels like she's on the "right track."
"It feels amazing to have a title at home and on hard courts," she said, aware that the most important segment of the season for American players is now underway. The hard-court US Open Series comes to a crescendo at Flushing Meadows at the end of this month. Keys has been flummoxed by successive fourth-round losses the past two years in her home Grand Slam. She's penetrated deeper at the two other majors played on fast courts, the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
The larger challenge for Keys is that she has been on the right track to winning a Slam since she whipped up great expectations at age 18 in her breakthrough year of 2013. She went on to make the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2015 and punched through into the top 10 last year.
But Keys also has struggled to develop the level of consistency it takes to win titles on a regular basis. She has taken unexpected losses at big events. The lingering problem in her wrist only exacerbated that weakness this year. Keys belted her way to the final in Rome in 2016, losing to Serena Williams. This year at that event, she wasted all that good karma in a first-round loss to No. 33-ranked Daria Gavrilova.
Keys would play just two matches after that loss to Gavrilova, at the French Open, before deciding to risk a second surgery to alleviate her wrist pain. She had a losing record for the year at the onset of Stanford, which just goes to show how explosive and dangerous she is when the stars align -- and she can keep them ordered.
"It's just great to see her back being healthy," ESPN analyst Chris Evert said when Keys returned to for the first time this year in March at Indian Wells. "I still think she's definitely going to win a Grand Slam, whether it's this year or next year. I think it's in the cards for her. We all know the potential is there."
Keys routinely denies feeling pressure because of the high expectations harbored by some of the best players in tennis history, including her on-again, off-again coach Lindsay Davenport. But part of becoming a great player is embracing that pressure and learning to live with it. Keys appears to be doing that.
After taking a second-round loss to No. 290 Petra Martic at the French Open and opting for a second wrist surgery, Keys' team advised against her playing Wimbledon. She overruled them and entered anyway because she loves that tournament and playing on grass.
"It's just pure happiness that I was able to get myself healthy enough to play here," Keys said in a news conference at the All England Club after her first-round win over Japan's Nao Hibino. Keys went into the second round short of practice, with just 11 matches under her belt in 2017, and she ran out of steam in three-set loss to Camila Giorgi.
But Keys left Wimbledon without fears or doubts about her wrist, her appetite whetted for the summer. Her enthusiasm showed at Stanford in her back-to-back straight-set wins over Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in the semifinals and Vandeweghe in the final.
There might have been an extra few foot-pounds of pressure for the 5-foot-10 Keys in the final, because Vandeweghe, who stands 6-foot-1 and is almost four full years older at 25, has been aggressively positioning herself as the next great player from the U.S. They are similar in most ways, their games loaded with power and shot-making ability.
"I kind of went in with feeling no pressure, in a weird way," Keys, now ranked No. 17, said afterward. She acknowledged that No. 20 Vandeweghe has had an "amazing" season, accumulating a 24-12 record. Vandeweghe also matched Keys' best Grand Slam result with a run to the Australian Open semifinals. But Keys retained her composure and won a sizzling match that featured bold shot-making thanks to a single break of serve, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
"I think that Madison is incredibly under-ranked," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said this spring. "Because with her talent level, she should be top 5."
Now that Keys is healthy, confident, and playing on home soil, she just might get there before the summer is out.