Madison Keys began fine-tuning her groundstrokes in Boca Raton, Florida when she was 9 years old, turned pro at 14 and spent six years grinding out matches in Australia, England, France and Spain. Yet, speak to her for a moment, and it becomes apparent she’s clearly a Midwesterner at heart.
“I think I’ll always consider the Quad Cities home,” she laughs.
Born in Rock Island, Illinois, one of the five Quad Cities – yes, there are five of them – that straddle the Mississippi River, her family (and her dog) currently resides in Bettendorf, Iowa, and as such, Keys’ demeanor has an unmistakable air of easygoing friendliness, the kind usually associated with Kroger cashiers, and not so-called “Next Big Things.”
Yet the 20-year-old Keys is currently leading a wave of talented young Americans making names for themselves around the globe. She had her coming out party at this year’s Australian Open, where she took down reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 7-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams en route to her first major semifinal. Once there, she fell to eventual champ Serena Williams in straight sets, but not before leaving a lasting impression: After their match, the 19-time Grand Slam champion stated that “it was an honor for me to play someone who will be No. 1 in the future.”
Not surprisingly, Keys took the compliment in stride.
“Coming from someone who’s been there, and has done that, it gives you the confidence that you can get there,” she calmly says. “But it’s also more motivation to keep working hard, keep doing what I’m doing, and hopefully live up to that.
“Everyone else wants to hear ‘I wanna be Top 5,’ or ‘I want to be winning a Grand Slam.’ Those are all goals of mine, but I’m not going to put a time limit on them,” she continues. “Right now, it’s really just about working on my game and getting more consistent and continuing to work hard. I think that if I focus on that, a lot of the other things will kind of take care of themselves”
Rarely do the preternaturally talented display this degree of levelheadedness, or possess such an acute awareness of what the world is expecting of them. Yet, in talking to Madison, it becomes clear that she is the exception to the rule. After all, no one can claim her run in Australia came out of nowhere: At the age of 14, she won her first match on the WTA level – she’s the youngest female since Martina Hingis to accomplish the feat – and finished the past two seasons inside the Top 40. Last year, she won her first WTA on the grass at Eastbourne. Her rise has been gradual and, at the same time, strangely inevitable.
“Since I came on the tour so young and I won my first match, I’ve had a lot of comments like ‘You’ll be a top player one day,'” she recalls. “I got to the point where, as nice as it was to hear that, I almost stopped listening to it. I was almost putting added pressure on myself. And I just started focusing more on playing well, and doing well, just for myself.”
It’s not difficult to figure out why many observers think so highly of Madison’s potential: few women on the WTA Tour have the weapons at her disposal. The most obvious of these is Keys’ serve. It’s a seemingly effortless blend of elegant technique and devastating power, a combination that landed her in the Top 10 in three different serving categories during the 2014 season. The sidekick to that serve is a cannon of a forehand, which she wields like a howitzer. Yet that particular element of her game didn’t come easy.
“It would barely get over the net,” she says. “It had lots of spin, and it was not pretty. I had a very big backswing. I had to change my grip, had to change my backswing.” Watching Madison blast away with her forehand in Melbourne, you’d never guess that the stroke had gone through such a radical reconstruction. Which is a testament to the coaching Keys has received over the years, her perseverance and her dedication to the sport.
Tennis found Madison Keys in a rather unconventional way. As the story goes, as a precocious four year old, Madison saw a dress she liked on TV, and asked her parents for one just like it. Given that the dress in question was being worn by Venus Williams at Wimbledon, her parents countered by saying that she could get a dress like that, but only if she tried tennis. Keys agreed to the arrangement.
“I practiced a lot on my driveway,” she says. “We had an empty lot across the street from us and my whole goal was to see how far I could get it into that lot. My grandpa was a huge baseball fan, so whenever we were at my grandparents’ house, we always went out to play. For me, whenever I hit the ball far enough, I would scream ‘Home run!'”
This anecdote gives you a clue about the Keys’ approach to their daughter’s newfound interest. Her parents, both attorneys, are the opposite of the stereotypical tennis-obsessives that push their progeny to the breaking point – “They’ve always told me if I want to quit tomorrow, they will always support me,” she says. And then there are her two younger sisters, who couldn’t care less about the hype that’s accompanied her rise.
“My youngest sister does not like tennis at all, and she’ll be the first one to tell you that, which I find pretty funny,” Keys says. “But no, my sisters are not really into tennis, and they don’t really follow it very well either. Which for me it’s almost nice, because I’m just their big sister, and they’ll always treat me like that.”
But even her sisters may be forced to start paying attention soon: Madison Keys recently began working with former world Number One and three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport. Initially their partnership was meant to be a temporary one, as Keys attempted to sort out her first handpicked coaching team (she had previously been working with the USTA, and before that, the Evert Academy). However, the pair clicked almost instantly, as evidenced by her run at Australian Open. And as Keys prepares for this week’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, she’s out to prove that her showing Down Under was merely a harbinger of things to come.
“Lindsay told me to try and move forward and come to net more often. We’ve worked a lot on my returns and that’s becoming a really solid part of my game. We’ve worked a lot on serves as well. Just using my game to try to get the first ball to be the offensive one in the point,” Keys explains. “But I think you can always become a better mover…and we’ve really been focusing on making [my backhand] consistent, turning it into something that isn’t going to break down.”
In between all that, Keys is still attempting to have some semblance of a normal life: She binge-watches Scandal and Game of Thrones (“Every time I like a character, they end up killing them!”), hoardes cans of Dr. Pepper during the WTA’s long international swings and maintains the best Twitter account on tour. With the support of her family, she’s managed to build a solid infrastructure around her, one that will undoubtedly serve her well as she attempts to truly become tennis’ “Next Big Thing.” But if that doesn’t work out, she’s already formulated a backup plan.
“Both of my grandmothers have always been really good bakers, and I was always in the kitchen helping them. Obviously I can’t eat a lot of the things that I make, but just baking it and giving it to someone makes me feel really good,” she says. “So maybe one day, I’ll have my own bakery. Or I could be an interior designer or party planner. I could be a party planner but also do the baking.”