Tennis

'Lucky loser' Davis outlasts Keys

Image: Lauren Davis (© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Lauren Davis on the Azarenka withdrawl: 'I was just so happy for the opportunity to play.'
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.

For James Blake, it was a real blast from the past. For Laura Davis, it was surprise and elation after she stepped in for the injured Victoria Azarenka. But for Madison Keys, it was a lost opportunity as she lost to Davis in the second round of the Sony Open after squandering three match points.

Image: Madison Keys (Alan Diaz/AP Photo)

Many people are talking about Madison Keys as a potential future Grand Slam champion, because she has the build and the aggression to handle today’s power-driven game.

Alan Diaz/AP Photo

“It will take me a couple of days to get over this,” said the 18-year-old Keys, managing a wry smile as she talked about her 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (7) loss to an opponent she knows as a friend, practice partner at Evert Tennis Academy and rival. “I was really nervous at the start and went for way too much; trying to end the points way too soon.”

In an extraordinary center-court duel that lasted 2 hours, 45 minutes, Keys turned it around from a set and 3-1 down and seemed to be heading for certain victory as she powered her way to 6-3 in the deciding tiebreaker after a forehand winner down the line followed by a backhand to the opposite corner had left Davis helpless.

“But I was remembering what had happened at the start of the match and got nervous again,” Keys admitted. “I wasn’t making the best decisions.”

A poor forehand that thumped into the net off a short return cost Keys the first match point and two more errors allowed Davis to level at 6-6. Then, having saved one match point herself, Keys double-faulted to give Davis another and promptly ballooned a forehand over the baseline. In a flash, victory had turned into defeat.

“I was pretty tired in the third set, but I’m sure she was, too,” an elated Davis said. “But she played really, really aggressive and kind of took me out of my comfort zone. I’m a grinder and good baseliner; she likes to keep the points short — big serve, big forehand. She kind of plays like a guy.”

That is one reason why people are talking about Keys as a potential Grand Slam champion sometime in the future, because she has the build and the aggression to handle today’s power-driven game. But she will just have to put this frustrating defeat down to experience and move on.

The drama had started before the match itself when Azarenka made one final attempt to keep her appointment with Keys but still felt pain in her ankle and withdrew little more than an hour before the match was due to go on court.

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“The decision was really hard to make,” said Azarenka, who relinquished her world No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams after losing her title at Indian Wells. “I tried to play a bit yesterday, and the pain got a little bit worse. Today, I went on court and got more pain. I cannot really move.”

That decision made Davis, in her words, “Ecstatically happy.” She had never signed up for a “lucky loser” spot in a draw before but had been preparing for the chance should it come. “I came here this morning with no hope that I was going to get in because I had seen Azarenka practicing and stuff, but I just hoped and wished and prayed I would get in. I was just so happy for the opportunity to play.”

Davis, 19, graduated high school four months ago and has risen to No. 81 in the world, five spots behind Keys — whom she sees virtually every day when they are off the tour because Lauren is still with Evert Tennis Academy while Madison has moved over to the USTA headquarters, which rents courts from the academy on the same property.

“I know her really well; we’re good friends,” said Davis, who will be seeing a lot more of her friend in a competitive situation as the careers of these two highly promising young players unfold.

For Blake, at the age of 33, the future is more limited, but that is not stopping the former Davis Cup star from enjoying every moment of his Indian summer. Having crushed Ryan Harrison 6-2, 6-2 in the first round, Blake played another superb match against 24th-seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau and won 6-2, 6-3.

“Yeah, it’s a great feeling,” Blake said afterward. “I’m just happy to be out here playing. It’s days like today that make it worth it. Makes it a lot of fun. Apart from two nights ago, it’s been a while since I’ve played this well. I have had days like this in practice, and I was just waiting to kind of put it together in a tournament.”

The match was moved onto Center Court after Dmitry Tursunov pulled out injured just before he was due to play No. 3 seed David Ferrer. So Blake benefited from the support of a large crowd as he took the fight to Benneteau, whacking huge forehands from the baseline and crowding the net whenever he saw the chance to get in.

“You never know how many more chances I’ll get playing in stadiums,” Blake said. “You know, I’m realistic. I’m 33; that’s getting to senior-citizen range on the tour. But when you get 10,000 people cheering for you and getting excited and the pressure is building up — that’s why I keep playing out here instead of just playing with friends back home.”

After two blackouts and a lengthy stoppage for rain, Maria Sharapova found enough power in the dank night air to demolish Canada's Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-0. But by then a little known German, Tobias Kamke, had played some of the best tennis of his life to upset No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro 7-6 (5), 6-1. The 26-year-old Kamke, ranked No. 89 in the world, hit del Potro off the court in the second set when the match resumed after the rain. It was hugely disappointing for the Argentine and his army of Latin American fans after his great run to the final of Indian Wells last week when he defeated Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Afterwards he intimated that his wrist, on which he had surgery in 2010, was still an issue. "It sometimes is bothering me," del Potro said. "He took the chance to beat me tonight and he deserved to win."

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