At the end of the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Serena Williams all but passed the baton of world dominance to the fellow American she had just beaten for the title.
“You’re going to be Number 1, for sure,” the 34-year-old Williams told 21-year-old Madison Keys, as they embraced at the net.
It was the second time Serena, the reigning top-ranked player in women’s tennis, had touted Keys’ potential. After defeating Keys in the semi-finals of the 2015 Australian Open, Serena said, “It was an honor for me to play someone who will be No. 1 in the future.”
The way Keys has been playing in recent weeks, Serena’s prediction may come sooner than she or anyone else imagined — except for, perhaps, Keys.
Keys recently became the first American woman since Serena in 1999 to make her debut in the top 10 of the Women’s Tennis Association rankings by winning the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, England. She began the year ranked No. 18.
It was her second career title — the first was at Eastbourne, England, in 2014 — and both have come on grass, which bodes well for Keys at Wimbledon, the season’s third Grand Slam, opening Monday.
I expect Keys, with her big serve and powerful groundstrokes, to go deep into the tournament. Some even predict a Serena-Madison matchup in the finals. Last year, Keys reached the quarter-finals.
Keys reached the fourth round of the first two slam events of the year, the Australian and French opens. But the grass courts at Wimbledon are more suited to her aggressive style of play.
And she enters the tournament brimming with confidence. Along with winning at Aegon, one of the Wimbledon tune-ups, Keys has beaten several of the top-10 players being mentioned among those who have the best chance of taking the title from Serena.
Keys beat both Garbine Muguruza, the French Open champion, and Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon winner, on her way to the finals against Serena in Rome. She has beaten current No. 5 Simona Halep and Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber. She has seven wins over top 10 players in her career.
A native of Rock Island, Ill., Keys lives and trains in Boca Raton, Fla. She turned pro on her 14th birthday in February 2009 and within months became one of the youngest players ever to win a WTA match when she defeated No. 81 Alla Kudryavtseva.
Since then, Keys has climbed the rankings, racking up 179 career victories against 103 losses. Her record this season is 22-7, and she has earned nearly $1 million in prize money, raising her career total to a little more than $3 million.
In addition to her two WTA titles, Keys has won three International Tennis Federation championships.
With her victory at the Aegon Classic, Keys also moved into the seventh spot for the year-end championships in Singapore. The annual event features the WTA’s top eight players based on ranking points earned from the start of the season.
In April, Keys changed coaches, taking on Thomas Hogstedt, who had just left Canadian Eugenie Bouchard’s camp. But it is her trainer, Scott Byrnes, whom Keys credits most for her recent success.
“He’s helped me get so much stronger and that’s been such a huge factor for me,” Keys told “WTA Insider” after her Aegon victory. “Being stronger means I’m able to last a little longer…, so when I’m on the court I know that I’m physically ready to be out there for as long as it needs to take.”
As hard as Keys hits the ball from both wings, that’s an ominous sign for opponents.