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After “borderline hate” for the game last year, Madison Keys is trying to better ride the tour’s inevitable up-and-down spirals
The hard-hitting American began 2022 with a title run in Adelaide, and hasn't dropped a set in her two victories at the Australian Open.
Published Jan 19, 2022
WATCH: Keys won a tune-up tournament in Adelaide, comfortably defeating fellow American Alison Riske in the final.
Who were the Americans to watch at the start of the year—i.e., 19 days ago? According to most writers and prognosticators, there were quite a few. Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz, Coco Gauff, Reilly Opelka, Jessica Pegula and Danielle Collins were all on the “come up,” as their countryman Frances Tiafoe likes to say—Tiafoe was too, for that matter.
One player whose name was not on many watch lists was Madison Keys. At 26, after 10 years on tour, she was ranked 51st. She won just 11 matches in 2022, and lost six of her last seven. She missed last year’s Australian Open due to COVID-19. She ended up, as she said this past weekend, in a “deep dark pit of despair.”
What a difference 19 days can make. Keys may have had the most impressive start to 2022 of any American. She already has eight wins—three short of her 2021 total—against just one loss. She won her first title since 2019 at an Australian Open tune-up in Adelaide. And after taking out the top-ranked American woman, Sofia Kenin, in Melbourne, she’s into the third round of a major she’s reached the semis of before.
Better yet, from her perspective, Keys is winning the close matches that she has so often lost in the past. She won two three-setters in Adelaide—including a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 semifinal win over Gauff—and she beat Kenin in two close sets, 7-6 (2), 7-5.
“I’m just really happy that I’ve been able to put a lot of good matches together,” Keys said after routing Alison Riske in the Adelaide final, 6-1, 6-2. “But the biggest thing I’m taking away from this week is even after being in positions where I lost the first set, or things might not be going my way, just having a really collected mindset, of, ‘I can figure this out, and if I don’t, [I can] go back onto the practice court and figure it out tomorrow.’”
As far as her game goes, Keys is trying to think shape first, pulverization second.
“For me it’s so easy to get suckered into just trying to hit hard, then I get frustrated that I’m not hitting winners or getting people off the court,” she said. “It’s just been a very conscious effort to get back to trying to hit some shape, looking for forehands, trying to get to the net, really putting all those things together. That’s how I play my best tennis.”
By now, Keys knows herself too well to think she’s going to put all these things together perfectly every time she goes on court. This year she’s trying not to let one bad shot, or game, or set, or match, lead to another, and lead her back to the dark place she reached last season, “where I borderline hate being on the tennis court and hate competing.”
“I’ve kind of just decided to let it go,” she said. “I told my boyfriend after I lost last week, I was like, ‘C’est la vie, just vibes, we’re vibing out here, it’s fine, we’re good.’”
Keys says being open about herself “is not my best attribute as a person; I usually like to hold it in.” So far this year, though, she has talked extensively about her mental struggles, and how the problems of stress and pressure and nerves are never entirely solved, especially over the course of a long season where you’re starting from scratch every week, and where all the self-belief you’ve built up can vanish in a couple of hours.
“It’s great to have confidence under your belt, but it really doesn’t matter,” she says. “It resets every single week, which is the great part and the really terrible part about tennis.”
“I was completely fine,” she continued, “then all of a sudden it was like Tuesday morning at 4 A.M. and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to defend points,’ fully spiraling, could not fall back asleep. I just had to talk myself off of the ledge.”
Kindness is Keys’ passion and project, and for her that starts with being kind to herself. She seems happy these days to talk about the sport’s psychological challenges, in a way that she might not have before Naomi Osaka normalized the topic. But Keys takes it one step farther when she admits that she’ll never be free of the crises of confidence and anxiety. She knows this is especially true with her game, which can go from brilliant to awful and back to brilliant again, seemingly with no explanation, over the course of a match. The important thing is to know that, if there’s a downside around every corner, there’s also an upside.
“Tennis is one of those sports that as long as you keep going forward with the right mindset and you keep working hard, things can change very easily,” she said.
There’s no better testament to that than the way Keys has started 2022. Her team’s motto is, “We’re going to go out and compete and you’re going to do your best and that’s it.” But like everything else, that’s easier said than done, so she finished her last press conference with a request for the media:
“Ask me again in six months and give me a lecture if that’s not what I’m doing.”