Before her first press conference of 2016, Madison Keys walked into the interview room at the Australian Open with a baseball cap pulled backwards over her head, a string of earrings down each lobe and a tiny silver stud in her nose. Her hair, still wet after a shower, hung down over her shoulders. Earlier that afternoon, after shaking off some rust and quieting a few butterflies, Keys had won her opening-round match at the year’s first major, and she couldn’t help flashing her trademark toothy grin as she leaned forward to banter with half a dozen members of the U.S. media.
It was a new year, and while these reporters had been chronicling Keys’ every move since her days as a forehand-pulverizing prodigy from Florida, this was in many ways a new player who sat before them.
Over the previous 12 months, Keys had cracked the Top 20 on tour and made herself a threat at the Grand Slam tournaments. Along the way, she had made many American tennis fans believe that there might actually be a future for the sport in this country after Serena Williams retires.
Yet in the off-season, Keys had surprised the tennis world by splitting with former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, the coach who many credited with her breakthrough. She hired a new, full-time team. Keys would be 21 the following month—had she left her slyly, shyly sarcastic teenage self behind?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
Asked how her new coach, former ATP tour pro Jesse Levine, was “adjusting to women’s tennis,” Keys’ grin narrowed to a wry smirk.
“He’s been fine…so far,” she says with an ironic twinkle in her eye. “There’s been a couple of times when he hits super, super spinny, and I’m like, ‘You can’t do that. No one [on the WTA tour] hits like that. Please stop.’”
Keys went on to talk, a little hesitantly, about the elbow injury she had suffered during the off-season. She admitted that she hadn’t hurt herself on a tennis court, but rather at home, when she slipped and fell in the rain.
“I tried to play it off,” Keys says with a laugh. “Then I was crying.”
Never mind the injury, though. What mattered to Keys now was the incident’s silver lining, one that only a fellow member of the social-media generation could truly appreciate.
“Fortunately,” she says, looking relieved, “there wasn’t any video.”
As young as Keys can still seem off the court, she began this year with her eyes focused on the long climb that lies ahead on it. After her successful 2015 campaign, Keys felt she could only move forward by placing that success squarely in the rearview mirror.
“It was a great year,” she says, “and I did a lot of really good things. People are going to try to measure me up to what I did then. But for me, it’s a new year. Last year doesn’t really matter.”
For the record, Keys says she’s not worried about how other people measure her, or whether she’s tagged with the dreaded, “Next Great American Tennis Player” label. Maybe that’s because she’s used to it by now. Last fall, Keys told The Wall Street Journal, “I was getting, at like 18, ‘Why haven’t you won a Grand Slam yet?’”
Now Keys says, “I don’t really focus on other people’s expectations of me. I only care what my own expectations are.”
What Keys expects most from herself this season is “consistency.” It’s easy to understand her preoccupation with it. While she reached the semifinals at the Australian Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year, she reached the quarterfinal round at just two other events. She finished the year 31–18.
A big part of the problem was physical. In 2015, Keys was forced to withdraw or retire from nine tournaments with four different injuries, to her shoulder, adductor, forearm and wrist. The issue didn’t appear to go away in 2016: At the Australian Open, Keys re-injured her left adductor and walked off the court in tears after her fourth-round defeat to Zhang Shuai.
As Davenport put it in Australia, “The key for Madison moving forward is to try to stay healthy. The biggest disappointment last year was the injuries. It was tough to practice, tough to get any momentum.”
For Keys, the remedy for inconsistency, whether in her play or in her health, was to bring stability to her support team. Davenport, who has four children, could only travel to the Grand Slams and other significant tournaments; it’s not a coincidence that Keys had her best results at those events. This year Levine, fitness trainer Scott Byrnes and physio Konstantinos “Danny” Koubourtsis will be with Keys full-time.
“I’ve known him for many years,” Keys says of Levine, who trained with her at the Evert Academy in the past. “I’m looking forward to having someone on the road and in the trenches with me.”
Chris Evert herself sees the change as a sign of maturity. “Mentally, she made a big move
by getting a team,” Evert said in Australia. “To me, that means she’s taking on a more professional commitment to the game. This is what I’ve I wanted to see.”
As Evert understands, though, playing with Keys every day can take its toll, even on a former ATP player. While Keys had to adjust to Levine’s spin, Levine had to adjust to her pace.
“I saw him in the gym the first day [of the Australian Open],” Evert said of Levine. “He was icing his elbow. I said, ‘What’s up?’”
Levine looked at Evert and said, “Have you ever hit with Madison?’”
“I’m very much right in the middle,” Keys told The New York Times last year. She was talking about race, and how she felt as the daughter of a black father and a white mother. “I don’t really identify myself as white or African-American. I’m just me. Madison.”
The quote caused some controversy, but her words could apply to her personality in general. There’s a down-to-earth, Midwestern quality—a middle-ness—to Keys, as well as a determined and still-evolving sense of herself as an individual.
At 9, she moved to Florida with her family—Keys has three sisters—to train at the Evert Academy, but she was born in Rock Island, IL. It was there, five years earlier, that she first picked up a racquet.
“All she did was try to hit the ball into the next yard—home runs,” her father, Rick, told the Times. And it was there that Keys’ first coach had her practice raising trophies along with hitting forehands. He knew that someday she’d be doing plenty of both.
Years later, Keys has become the champion she was expected to be, but she’s still in the process of making herself into an adult.
On the one hand, she can sound like a hardened tour veteran. “I’ve been on my own and traveling for years now,” she says. “Sometimes I forget that I’m only 21. It’s the life of a tennis player. It can be tough and lonely on the road, but at the end of the day we get to play professional tennis for a living, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
On the other hand, Keys can sound like any other American kid when she says her favorite food is ice cream, her favorite singer is Taylor Swift and two of her favorite things are watching TV and shopping. Last year, like a kid playing hooky, Keys asked Davenport for a day off so she could go to the Coachella music festival.
Keys can also sound like any other college-age daughter when she tweets, “Hate having to say good-bye to my Mom.” It was Keys’ peer, Sloane Stephens, who was always the snarky, world-weary teen. Keys’ self-confidence and personality have taken a little longer to come through.
Once Keys steps onto a tennis court, though, she’s no longer a normal adult-in-the-making. Really, it seems as if there has always been a sense of inevitability about her. Evert says she expects Keys to be a Wimbledon champion within the next five years—“the grass should only accentuate her power,” she notes—and Davenport only echoes those sky’s-the-limit sentiments.
“She’s such a phenomenal athlete,” Davenport says. “For Madison, it’s always about using that explosive power.”
Last year Davenport tried to hone Keys’ strengths. She worked on getting her “to take pride in holding serve every time,” on finding ways to hit more forehands and on “moving her shots around the court, not just hitting straight through it.”
First with Davenport and now with Levine, Keys has embarked on the slow process of turning herself from a hitter into a player. She needs to remember that, just because she can belt winners from anywhere, doesn’t mean she should try them from anywhere. She needs to remember that once she has a player pushed back, she should move forward to press the advantage.
It’s a process that many promising American players haven’t completed in recent years. According to Levine, the next step for Keys is to treat bad patches of play not as causes for despair, but as challenges to overcome.
“I’ve definitely been working a lot on the mental side of my game,” Keys said at this year’s Australian Open. “Being able to stay composed through whatever is going on on the court, just figure some stuff out when I’m not playing, you know, perfect tennis.”
Keys’ physical fragility is worrisome, and her game still needs polish. But it’s a good sign that, at her young age, she’s not letting the perfect game be the enemy of a winning one.
There’s no such thing as a “can’t-miss” player, but if Keys can stay healthy enough to play a little more, and consistent enough to miss a little less, there might—just might— be a future for American tennis after all.