The peak of sport enthusiasm is the rivalry: teams, positions, players… Rivalries push opponents to raise their games and fans to choose and support one over the other. The best tennis rivalries produce career long competition and unique relationships on and off the court. If the competition becomes antagonistic it provides the media with a catchy narrative, but the rivalry should remain on the court; the victor wins with serves, forehands, backhands, spins, drop-shots, lobs or even a tweener not a media headline.
Rivalries require opponents who earnestly vie for the win and the top position. The best rivalries and the truest definition of this sport relationship is rarely lopsided. The ultimate rivalries help players develop their games and achieve hall of fame accomplishments. Consider these rivalries: Lendl-McEnroe (21/15), Federer-Nadal (12-23) Agaasi-Sampras (14-20), Evert-Navaratilova (37-43), Serena-Venus (17-11), Serena-Hingis (7-6), Serena-Henin (8-6) and Serena-Sharapova (19-2).
Characterized by friendship or animus, when competition escalates to rivalry it ignites the sport. Healthy rivalries are good for the players, fans and the sport. With Sharapova’s doping ban and wildcard controversy, Azarenka’s maternity leave, Kvitova’s home invasion and wrist injury and Serena’s knee injury, a rivalry is just the headline the sport needs. But will Madison Keys (USA) and Naomi Osaka (JPN) deliver this much-needed rivalry in 2017?
Keys and Osaka are the two most formidable WTA rising stars. They have similar physiques, athleticism, narratives and games. On the tour since 2009, Keys is a mid-westerner (Illinois) born to a black father and a white mother. In this racially charged environment, she has refused to racially identify saying, “I don’t really identify myself as white or African-American. I’m just me. I’m Madison.” Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan, to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother. Though she has lived in America since three and trains in Florida, she plays for Japan reportedly largely due to the financial support they offer; she does not speak the language and has spent the last couple years developing her relationship with the press and people. She likely identifies as black. Last year she said, “…when I go to Japan people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a black girl.” Like Serena Williams, her father, Leonard Francois, is her primary coach. Of course like most of this new generation, Serena is also Osaka’s idol though there is no prove she began the sport as a result of a tennis outfit like Keys.
Though both would generally be considered black by most based on appearance and genetics, their comments or lack thereof illustrate the complexity of race in the twenty-first century. Their willingness to distance themselves and their power games from comparisons to Serena and Venus Williams is strategic. Managed by IMG, their branding was cemented with distinct deals: Keys with Evian and FearlesslyGIRL and Osaka with broadcaster WOWOW and food brand Nissin.
Keys and Osaka are both tall right-handed power base players with an inability to close sets/matches even when they are in the lead, but their games are evolving differently. Keys’ has always had the power. Her serve and groundstrokes (average and top speed) rival and often surpass Serena and many on the ATP. Keys’ game has largely been a power defense and baseline game, but with her return to a coaching relationship with American Hall of Famer Lindsey Davenport, she has improved her transition and net game.
At 5’10” Keys can be an imposing figure at the net, even though she does not have Townsend’s much less Radwanska’s touch. Most concerning is her inconsistent demonstration of tennis IQ, mental fortitude and fitness. Her career has been plagued by significant injuries: abductor, neck, ankle, wrist surgery… Her first game back from wrist surgery she showed more aggression, an ability to build solid points, take good shots and finish at the net. However she was still unable to close out the second round Indian Wells match to qualifier M. Duque-Marino. Keys lead 6-1, 5-1 and proceeded to lose four games before winning 6-1, 7-5. She does not demonstrate temperance or discernment. Her every shot is cloaked in heaps of pace with very little concern for placement, point development or strategy, like breaking down the opponent’s serve or backhand.
Osaka is three years younger and an inch taller. She is ranked over forty places behind Keys and has only been on the tour four years. Unlike Keys, she is far more reserved on and off the court. While Keys appears open, fun-loving and smiles broadly to the name Maddy/Maddie, Osaka is a self-described outsider with a unique sense of humor.
This potential rivalry maybe marred by the similarities of their power games. However, these ball bashers are distinguishable! Osaka’s serve is a little faster and her movement a little better. Key has more experience and confidence even with a rehabbed wrist. Neither has great touch or mental fortitude, but Osaka’s ranking trajectory, health and passion are notable. They seem to hold no hostility against each other, their personalities are seemingly distinct and managed by IMG, powerbrokers will work hard to keep the competition on the court and fair.
Their first meeting was at the US Open ’16 Round 32. On the cusp of her biggest win, up 5-1 in the third set, Osaka crumpled and Keys won 7-5 4-6 7-6 (3). Overwhelmed by the occasion and the venue, Osaka’s lost does not negate the formidable game she brought to Keys.
Their second match was billed as a third round highlight at Indian Wells ’17. Keys came out prepared, ready to squash the dreams of her opponent and potential rival. Confident, she secured the first set 6-1 in nineteen minutes. The second set was no steamroll with Osaka finding her way to the net and moving Keys around the court with her heavy balls. Keys had great focus throughout and an obvious comfort. Keys’ serve was excellent, speed and placement. If you had any doubt her wrist had healed, Keys’ slice backhand slice dropshot was played just for you. Unable to break Keys, Osaka’s risk heavy game succumbed to the unstoppable pace and play of Keys 6-1, 6-4 in fifty-eight minutes. With a 2-0 head-to-head, has keys put an end to all talk of a Keys-Osaka rivalry?
Critics note that rivalries require more than a couple matches, different game styles and unique personalities. To this I say, if not Osaka, who? Sure Keys has yet to take the court against Karolina Pliskova and she has horrendous head-to-heads against Kerber (1-6), Radwanska (1-5), Halep (1-5) and Serena (0-3). But who among the current players is better suited to push Keys in coming years? This rivalry has the potential of a career long competition with ebbs and flows as the players develop and mature on and off the court. These players are at the beginning of their careers. Give them time, my guess is that their tour, federations, and management teams are preparing for a healthy competition if not a rivalry of the kind we have not seen since the eighties when tennis was mainstream and not yet truly global!