Resurgent Venus Williams Blocking Madison Keys' Path to American Tennis Stardom

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2015

Venus Williams of the U.S. celebrates after winning over Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
Rob Griffith/Associated Press

Seventeen years ago at the 1997 U.S. Open, an 18-year-old Venus Williams made it to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. At the time, Madison Keys was three.

On Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia, the legend of Grand Slams past and the potential star of Grand Slams future will face off to see which American has what it takes to be an Australian Open semifinalist in the present.

Venus, now 34 years old, and Keys, now 19, will meet in the quarterfinals of the first Slam of the year. It will be Venus's 34th career Slam quarterfinal. It will be Keys' first.

This is a chance for Keys, now coached by former Venus rival Lindsay Davenport, to prove that she is the next star of American women's tennis.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 22:  Madison Keys of the United States celebrates winning her second round match against Casey Dellacqua of Australia during day four of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

We've been searching for a successor to Williams sisters' throne for so many years, and at long last, here is a hard-hitting, big-serving, winner-blasting teenager who seems poised mentally and physically to become a champion.

Now, playing against the player who inspired her to pick up a tennis racket, Keys can take a step toward greatness.

But standing in her way will be a seven-time major champion who is experiencing a career revival that few outside of the Williams family saw coming.

It's been almost seven years since Venus last won a major. It's been five years since she made it this far in Australia. In the last half-decade, she has seen her ranking drop all the way down to No. 134, been diagnosed with incurable autoimmune disease, Sjogren's syndrome and dealt with multiple injuries and comeback attempts.

Venus with her Dubai trophy last year.
Venus with her Dubai trophy last year.Warren Little/Getty Images

Last year, she played in 13 tournaments—her most since 2010—and made four finals, winning one title in Dubai. This got her ranking back into the top 20.

However, her disappointing performances at Slams overshadowed any progress she made, particularly as her little sister continued to be the top-ranked player in the world.

That's what makes Venus' run this past week Down Under so special. She's been able to turn back the clock and truly show the game and grit that have led her to five Wimbledon titles. Her 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 fourth-round victory over No. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska was particularly impressive—Venus was able to simply find another gear in the third set to notch her second top-10 win of the year.

Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win puts her Australian Open run in perspective:

[Venus] defeated the hottest player at the Australian Open (Radwanska had won a 6-0 set in each of three matches) and looked 10 years younger than her 34 years. That “advanced” age makes Venus the oldest Melbourne quarterfinalist since Billie Jean King in 1982. She also qualified for her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since 2010. And it’s not like she’s been on the verge of doing so over the past few years either. Here’s how far Venus made it in her last 11 Slams, dating back to the 2011 U.S. Open: 2R, 2R, 1R, 2R, 3R, 1R, 2R, 1R, 1R, 2R, 3R.

Now, the only thing standing in between Venus and the semifinalsand a likely showdown with her sister Serena—is Keys.

Keys is a soft-spoken teen who, at a lanky 5'11", resembles Venus both in posture and on-court performance. She first became interested in tennis when she was a kid who saw Venus playing on TV and liked her tennis dress, and has been hyped as the next big thing in American tennis for years now.

But it wasn't until this offseason that Keys really decided to take her career into her own hands.

After stagnating a bit in 2014—she started the year ranked No. 38 and finished it ranked No. 32—Keys decided that she no longer wanted to just work with the United States Tennis Association.

Instead, as reported by Christopher Clarey of The New York Times, she wanted to create her own team. Her agent, Max Eisenbud (of Maria Sharapova and Li Na fame), set her up with Davenport for the offseason. The two clicked immediately, and Davenport decided that she would work with Keys during the season too.

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

The impact has been immediate—Keys has had trouble harnessing her big-time game and nerves before, but she's been very in control of both this tournament.

Her breakout moment was a third-round, straight-sets upset over No. 4 Petra Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion. She followed that up by beating her countrywoman Madison Brengle, also in straights.

Now, the biggest test of her career awaits her in the quarterfinals. This is new ground for Keys, but according to what she told Australian Open reporters, she's ready:

I'm just really excited. I think it's a huge opportunity for me. I haven't been in this situation before. I'm going to make the most of it. But at the same time no matter what, I'm not really going to be satisfied with any win. I want to be at the end of the tournament holding the trophy up. That's my goal in the long run. So I am very happy that I'm in the quarterfinals. I'm really just looking forward to the next match.

It's good to see that while Keys is appreciative of her run so far, she's not yet content. That's a sign of a champion.

For American tennis fans, this is an exciting time. The country has three of the eight quarterfinalists in this Slam, two legends of the game and one up-and-comer with loads of potential. No matter what, there will be an American woman in the semifinals.

We'll just have to wait and see whether Wednesday will mark the arrival of a future star or another chapter in an iconic career.

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