Madison Keys entered the Birmingham grass court final on Saturday and moved into the world top 10 for the first time with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) win over Carla Suarez Navarro.
Keys is the first US woman to debut in the top 10 since Serena Williams in 1999 and she achieved the breakthrough in explosive style, managing to unleash such a powerful forehand on one point that she destroyed the net.
The 21-year-old dropped serve early on against her Spanish opponent, repaired the damage in a rousing second set, accelerated into a 4-2 final set lead, and then twice had to serve to save the match before snatching the result in a tense tiebreak.
“I only heard about being in the top 10 from my coach and I didn’t want to think about it,” admitted Keys who will face Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic in Sunday’s final.
“I was pretending I didn’t know. Much of the time I was concentrating on trying to get back into the match.”
Keys eventually achieved that with 12 explosive aces and many more service winners, although her ferociously struck forehands were mixed with many unforced errors, one of which was a drive which landed two feet up the backstop.
A warning about the damaging pace of her forehand came as early as the second point when Keys launched the ball into the net and watched it collapse.
She claims once to have played a match in an earthquake, and Saturday’s incident also caused a ripple, with ground staff jumping around and managing to attach another net within five minutes.
But when Keys hit her targets she was unstoppable, creating the kind of devastation which recently prompted Serena Williams to describe her as a future world number one.
It was ironic therefore that a rare error from the admirably consistent Navarro, brought the mortal blow.
Constructing a nicely patterned rally and looking well positioned to nudge the score back to 4-5 in the tiebreak, she unexpectedly chose to slice a backhand at a sharp angle across the forecourt.
It slid wide and put her match point down at 3-6.
Keys closed it out with a first serve and two strident drives.
“It was a balancing act all through between going for the right shot and being more consistent,” she reckoned.
“My only title is on grass (Eastbourne, 2014) and the surface really suits my game. This year I really want to go further than the quarter-final I reached at Wimbledon last year.”
Keys had thought she might have a final against one of her best friends, CoCo Vandeweghe, the 32nd-ranked American.
Instead, Vandeweghe was worn down 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 by Strycova, the Czech who reached her second Birmingham final in three years.
This too was an utterly unpredictable match. Vandeweghe broke back bravely for 2-3 in the final set, whereupon she sat in her chair and burst into tears.
“I’m not really a crier so I don’t know what that was about,” she said.
“There’s been a lot of things going on this week so I guess it was an accumulation of all of them.”
It was her last flourish though. Strycova, still apparently fresh after an exasperating on-off week, increasingly proved calmly and consistently effective.