Australian Open 2022: Madison Keys and Jessica Pegula, Americans abroad, could meet, but first face daunting opponents

play
Madison Keys dominates in impressive 6-3, 6-1 victory (0:41)

Madison Keys wins in straight sets in her victory over Paula Badosa to move on to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. (0:41)

Madison Keys had just won her first WTA title since 2019 with a dominant run at Adelaide earlier this month, and Jessica Pegula didn't hesitate to shoot her friend a congratulatory text:

"Comeback season," Pegula typed with her thumbs. "She's back."

Keys received the message, literally and figuratively, and now is back into her first major quarterfinal in nearly three years. And Pegula, who made her career breakthrough at the 2021 Australian Open, is there too.

If both were to win their matches on Tuesday -- Keys plays reigning French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and Pegula plays world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Ash Barty -- they would set up an All-American semifinal clash with a gigantic opportunity on the line.

While a final four major appearance would be equally relished by both players, Keys' and Pegula's paths to this potential collision course could not be more different.

After being a perennial Grand Slam contender for several years and a top-20 mainstay, Keys was forced to watch the 2021 Australian Open from some 9,000 miles away. She had tested positive for COVID-19 just days before she was set to leave for Melbourne. After the challenging restart following the pandemic the season prior, it wasn't exactly how she envisioned the new year.

When she finally got her chance to return to the tennis court, her fortunes didn't improve much. Keys didn't advance past the fourth round at any of the year's remaining Slams. At the US Open, a place where she had reached the final in 2017, she lost in her opening match. She advanced to just one quarterfinal, in Berlin, on the year. By early January of this year, her ranking plummeted to No. 87 - the lowest it had been since 2013.

With each loss and early exit, she became anxious and couldn't sleep.

play
0:56

Jessica Pegula advances to Aussie Open quarterfinals with upset win

American Jessica Pegula knocks off No. 5 Maria Sakkari in straight sets to advance to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

"[It] felt like there was literally a weight on my chest just because I became so focused and obsessed with it," Keys said this week. "I wasn't enjoying really anything because it's all that I was thinking about."

But after taking some time to reset in the offseason, including spending a few days getting away from everything in Montana, Keys came to Australia to start the 2022 season with a reinvigorated spirit - and it's showed. She opened play in Adelaide with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina and hasn't looked back. Keys, 26, has dropped just one set in Melbourne and is on a nine-match win streak.

She's looking for her 11th victory of the season on Tuesday, which would equal her total number of won matches in all of 2021, and is currently at No. 35 in the live rankings.

"My biggest mindset change is just trying to enjoy tennis, take some of that just internal pressure that I was putting on myself," Keys said after her 6-3, 6-1 win over No. 8 seed Paula Badosa on Sunday. "It was honestly freezing me. I felt like I couldn't play at all. Just taking that away and putting tennis into perspective: that it's a sport, something that when I was little I enjoyed doing and loved doing it.

"I was letting it become this dark cloud over me. Just trying to push all of that away and leave that behind last year and start fresh this year."

Pegula, 27, needs no such fresh start. After years of battling serious injuries and early exits at Grand Slams, she made a name for herself at the 2021 Australian Open with a quarterfinal appearance -- her best career result at a major. She enamored fans around the world with fearless play against highly-ranked opponents, entertaining antics ahead of her match against pal Jen Brady and, of course, her family connection to the Buffalo Bills. (Yes, her parents own the team, and the Sabres.)

She arrived to Melbourne in 2021 ranked No. 61 and left nearing the top 40. Pegula immediately followed up her head-turning performance with a semifinal appearance in Qatar and recorded a slew of impressive results throughout the year. She even qualified for the U.S. Olympic team -- something that hadn't been remotely in reach a year prior -- and went to Tokyo.

Thanks to another deep run this year, Pegula, currently ranked No. 21, could leave Australia as the top-ranked American woman. She is expected to rise to a new career-high No. 15 after her fourth-round victory, and a win over Barty would put her just outside of the top 10.

Pegula knows facing Barty will be an uphill battle, especially on Barty's "home turf" and with the crowd very much against her. They've played just once before -- in the first round of the 2019 French Open, a tournament Barty went on to win -- but Pegula is a dramatically different player these days. She is coming into the match off a straight-sets win over No. 5 seed Maria Sakkari, another opponent whom she had lost to in two previous matches.

Her coach, David Witt, said each victory has given her more and more momentum.

"I think when we started [working together in 2019], it was just to get that belief in her, that she can beat [players in the] top 50, top 40, top 10," Witt said after her fourth-round match. "I think once you start winning, confidence is everything, and once she started getting a few wins under your belt, I think she really felt like 'I belong here,' and I think that's taken her a long way...

"You've got to beat the best to be the best, [and] Ash is definitely the best right now."

Pegula was happy to have the Bills' playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs as a distraction Monday and told reporters she was planning on watching before going to practice. She wrote, "Bills you're next" on the camera after a win earlier in the week and has been enjoying the continued support of the Bills Mafia. Keys was crowdsourcing Melbourne restaurant recommendations for her off day.

While it remains to be seen if the two Americans will meet in the semifinals, Pegula said Keys has already taught her a valuable lesson.

"I think it's just good to see [Keys] enjoying it a little bit more," Pegula said. "It kind of makes you remember as well for yourself, like going into this year for me, tennis is so up and down. I saw the quote where she said she already won more matches this year than she did last year. Tennis is just like that.

"It helps put things in perspective that maybe you'll have some rough patches but always keep your goals there, keep your head up, not get too down on yourself ... Now she's even done better. Cool to see. You always want to learn stuff from other people's experiences."