She was the uber-talented Florida kid with all the promise, all the potential in the world. The kind agents and shoe companies drool over. Big serve, big forehand, and a Cheshire-wide, endorsement-dollar smile to match.
Madison Keys was just 14 in 2009, the year she turned pro, already pegged as The Next Big Thing. As an addendum to its ‘Where Are They Now?’ issue that summer, Sports Illustrated included Keys in its ‘Where Will They Be?’ forecast, packaged amongst a group that included a schoolboy golfer named Jordan Spieth, and NASCAR hero-to-be Chase Elliott, then only 13, not yet of legal driving age.
“She’s fearless,” said John Evert, who was helping shape Keys’ considerable game at his namesake academy in Boca Raton, Fla.
Has it really been a dozen years since we were introduced to that 5-foot-11 phenom with the shelves full of Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl hardware, the one with big-title dreams?
Now 26, Keys has since lived what feels like another lifetime, having indeed become the Top-10 power SI and so many others predicted. She won her maiden WTA crown in 2014 (Eastbourne), climbed to a career-high No. 7 in 2016, and played her way into an All-American US Open final in 2017, falling to her friend Sloane Stephens. She’s now reached the quarterfinals or better at all four majors, and represented the U.S. in Fed Cup play and at the Rio Games.
Some of Keys’ best tennis has come on the green clay at the LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center. She reached the Volvo Car Open quarters in 2013, the final in 2015, the semis in 2018, and won it all in 2019, outhitting the now-retired Caroline Wozniacki in the title match, 7-6(5), 6-3. She finds herself in a unique situation in 2021. With the 2020 Volvo Car Open canceled due to COVID-19, she is setting out to defend a title that is two years old.
“It’s definitely a little strange,” said Keys, who hasn’t missed the Volvo Car Open since making her tournament debut nine years ago. “But I’m really looking forward to being back in Charleston. I was sad to have missed it last year. It’s one of my favorite tournaments. I love the city. I love the fans. I enjoy coming back and playing in a place that really loves tennis.”
Like the rest of the world, it’s been a challenging year for Keys. Just when the tennis calendar was beginning to regain some momentum in the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season, she suffered a neck injury at the US Open and pulled out of her third-round matchup with Alize Cornet. Then, just prior to the 2021 Australian Open, she tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to miss the fortnight.
Through it all, she’s somehow managed to keep a positive outlook.
“It’s been a really tough year for everyone,” Keys, the owner of five career WTA titles, told VovloCarOpen.com. “I’ve been fortunate to be healthy and safe. My biggest worry was when I would be able to play tennis again. I consider myself incredibly lucky. I think that’s really kept my perspective in line. I know not everyone has had that luxury.”
A return to Daniel Island may be just what the doctor ordered. After all, the Miami-to-Charleston, hard-court-to-clay-court pivot has served Keys well in the past. After strong showings in 2018 and 2019, she would go on to reach the semifinals and quarterfinals, respectively, at Roland Garros. She knows a deep run at the Volvo Car Open can be a significant jumpstart to the clay campaign.
“It’s always really important to be able to have a couple of good matches on any surface, especially right when you switch over,” Keys explained. “It can really help your confidence and your momentum. The past couple of years, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at switching from hard courts to clay courts.”
Of course, as Keys can attest, there are no givens these days. One glimpse at the 2021 Volvo Car Open player field — World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, seven-time Slam champ Venus Williams, the zoning Garbiñe Muguruza, etc. — reveals the ever-increasing roster of talent on the WTA Tour.
“Every single year, it’s gotten tougher and tougher,” she said. “You just know, even in the first round of whatever tournament you’re playing, it’s going to be a tough match and you’re going to have to show up and play some of your best tennis. While that can be difficult at times, knowing that from the first ball that you have to be on, it shows just how great women’s tennis is. There are no easy first rounds.”
Much of that depth has come in the form of young players who’ve made their presence known in a hurry (think Coco Gauff, Amanda Anisimova, et al). Keys can relate. She might even see herself in them at times as they navigate the tour in their teen years. Just don’t expect her to dole out any words of wisdom.
“I think they’re all doing incredibly well without my advice,” she laughed. “I’m always there as a person who completely understands what they’re dealing with, having been in their situation. But, honestly, I think they’re handling it way better than I ever did.”
If she were to offer advice to anyone, it might be to her 14-year-old self, that kid who made her big Sports Illustrated splash back in 2009.
“A lot of the weight was put on me by myself,” said Keys of the expectations she dealt with early on. “But I was incredibly lucky to be coming up at a time when there were a lot of other amazing young American women. We kind of all got to shoulder that pressure together. It was a collective thing. If I could have known that I would have accomplished everything I have when I was 14, I think I would have been incredibly happy. I’m very proud of everything that I’ve done. It’s made me want to do even more and set my goals even higher.”
Catch Madison Keys in action on Tennis Channel as she begins her title defense during the 2021 Volvo Car Open.