LONDON–It took a second or two to recognize Madison Keys out on Court 12 at Wimbledon on Monday morning. True, not many players on the WTA tour look as physically imposing as the 5’10” Illinois native. And true, not many can hit a forehand 90 m.p.h., which she appeared to do on a couple of occasions during her relatively painless 6-4, 6-2 win over Nao Hibino.
But it has been a while since Keys has had much of a presence on tour, or lasted long enough at a tournament to be noticed. Instead of starting 2017 at the Australian Open, one of her favorite events, she started it on the sidelines, recovering from surgery on her left wrist. Even when Keys returned in March, she tended not to stick around long. Over the course of the clay season this spring, Keys lost in the first round in Charleston, Madrid and Rome, and in the second round at Roland Garros. After that last loss, she finally bit the bullet and had a second surgery to relieve that pain that had crept back into her wrist.
Now here she was at Wimbledon just three weeks later, in a simple white dress, with her hair up and her face obscured by a visor. She looked different, calmer, less anxious, less agitated over the result of each point. She was back on a surface she loves, and at a tournament that Chris Evert, among others, has predicted she’ll win sooner rather than later. Keys said last week that she felt like this was a fresh start for her, and judging by her austere look and her business-like victory—punctuated by 20 winners—it seemed that she had, for this day anyway, purged the struggles of the recent past from her mind.
Whether that’s true or not, Keys is in a much better place than she was a month ago. Now, at least, she knows that she’s not crazy.
“[The doctor] said, ‘I don’t know how she was playing, it was so bad,’ Keys told the WTA website last week, describing what she overhead the surgeon say to her mother after the operation. “I was awake enough to hear him and in a weird way I was like, ‘Oh, thank god. I’m not insane. My brain is still working. I’m not making it up.’
“The relief of hearing the doctor say it was so bad was so huge.”
Virtually anyone who has undergone surgery knows how confusing it can be to continue to feel pain afterward. Is it supposed to hurt this much? Did the doctor really fix anything? When will it go away? Like most people in that situation, Keys was told that the lingering ache she felt in her wrist was part of the healing process. But after feeling a sharp stab after hitting a forehand during her second-round loss in Paris, she decided she had to do something. Since going under the knife again at the Mayo Clinic, the pain has cleared up.
“It’s obviously not perfect,” Keys said on Monday, “but I don’t feel any pain, which is all I care about.”
Still, she had to convince the rest of her team that she was ready for Wimbledon.
“I was just so excited about grass court,” she said. “After grinding through the clay season, and missing grass? That wasn’t going to happen.”
While Keys admitted to experiencing a surge of nerves when she stepped on court on Monday, she said that coming back from injury kept her from worrying too much about her game.
“There were a couple of things I needed to focus on,” she said, “and I didn’t focus on anything else.”
So far this year, Keys, who is seeded 17th here, has been something of a forgotten figure in U.S. tennis. Venus Williams and Coco Vandeweghe have been talked about as possible Wimbledon dark horses, but Keys is 11-4 for her career here, and she reached the quarters and the fourth round the last two years. As she said, missing Wimbledon wasn’t an option for her.
Keys has an unpredictable opponent next in Camila Giorgi, a fellow power hitter; Madison said on Monday that she didn’t expect many, if any, rallies in their second-rounder. We’ll see if her wrist holds up, and if she can stay as calm as she did on Monday as her expectations begin to rise. She won’t be happy just to be out there forever.
And now that we recognize her again, Keys won’t be able to stay under the radar forever. For fans of U.S. tennis, that’s a good thing.
—GRAND SLAM WEEK: Watch Wimbledon Primetime on Tennis Channel, and catch up on the other 2017 Grand Slams on Tennis Channel Plus
—Watch encores from the 2017 French Open and Australian Open on Tennis Channel Plus, including matches like the AO Final showdown between Serena & Venus Williams