The swoosh on Maria Sharapova's blue visor was saturated with sweat, while the fifth-seeded Russian was leaking errors amid a second-set onslaught from Madison Keys.
The first meeting between the power players saw both women play first-strike tennis in splitting sets. Sharapova created separation to start the decider then locked down her serve securing a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory to reach the Cincinnati third round.
Keys earned triple break point moments into the match. The Roland Garros champion didn't blink, denying all three break points and stinging a backhand off the baseline to hold. Perhaps it was the nervous jitters facing a Grand Slam champion or the accelerated pace of Sharapova's drives, but Keys' footwork was stagnant in the first set. She'd hit a shot and sometimes pause as if surprised Sharapova's response came back so fast and deep. Four return errors from the American, including three off her forehand wing, helped Sharapova work through a challenging hold for 3-0 advantage after 16 minutes of play.
Sharapova played the swirling wind with more care, sometimes taking a bit of pace off her return, dropping it shorter and coaxing Keys into over-ambitious strikes. A stretched forehand error gave Sharapova a second break and a 4-0 lead. Keys' coach, Juan Todero, urged his charge to "move your feet and use the kick serve...try to do the right things we talked about and see what happens."
Moving more fluidly and elevating her forehand, Keys cleaned up her act in the second set. The WTA's highest-ranked teenager owns the jolting power of a player who can end a point with one swing — and the impulsive aggression to let her forehand fly from obscure areas on court. Keys is most dangerous working her forehand in combinations. She cracked a deep forehand return drawing the short ball then clubbed a forehand down the line, breaking at love for a 4-2 second-set lead. Serving for the set, a scrambling Keys caught a break when Sharapova netted a low backhand volley with her nose near the net. Keys closed the 41-minute second set banging a serve winner down the middle.
Retreating from court for about a seven-minute bathroom break, Sharapova stalled Keys' rhythm then broke her serve. A stinging backhand down the line followed by a tentative second serve into net gave Sharapova triple break point. She needed only one, whipping a running forehand crosscourt to break for 2-0 in the decider. There was a time when Sharapova's stalking baseline style was as subtle as a slasher flick — a little plot development and a lot of screaming and vicious hacking. She's a better match manager these days and used her experience baiting Keys into untimely errors. Sharapova won seven of 10 points played on her second serve and did not face a break point in the final set.
Keys has the tools for a Top 10 career — her serve is already one of the most imposing in the game, her forehand is a kill shot and she's not scared to take the big strike — but the world No. 28 must learn to choose her targets with more margin, play crucial points with more clarity and make more balls early to establish rhythm. With Sharapova serving at 3-1, 30-all Keys pounced a second serve, had the short ball she sought for a break point opportunity but slid a slice backhand into net. Sharapova held for 4-1 and never looked back closing a hard-hitting encounter with a net-cord winner.
The 2011 champion raised her Cincinnati record to 11-2 and will play either compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Italian Karin Knapp next.