With kindness and tennis, Madison Keys is a unique Charleston champion

With kindness and tennis, Madison Keys is a unique Charleston champion

With her visit to Meeting Street Academy in March and her leadership in the Credit One Bank Invitational this week, last year's Volvo Car Open winner has established a strong connection to the community.

Madison Keys has returned to Charleston twice in 2020, and on neither occasion did she defend her Volvo Car Open title.

Her most recent visit to the charming South Carolina city was for this week’s Credit One Bank Invitational, where she’s the captain of Team Kindness. But back in March, just days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports, Keys paid a visit downtown to Meeting Street Academy, the flagship of a school network that looks to eliminate educational inequality in the greater Charleston area.

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Opened in 2008 as “a proving ground,” reads the school’s website, and “a place to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to close the opportunity gap that has plagued our community for decades,” Meeting Street Schools were founded by Ben Navarro, the owner of the Volvo Car Open and the tournament’s facility on Daniel Island. Like Keys, the Charleston businessman has given back to his community through both athletics and academics.

“I think everybody in the world is looking for answers—how do we provide more opportunity for everybody, not just a select few?” says Navarro. “Education is a great equalizer, and we’re about providing education to kids that would be attending, let’s call them failing schools.”

To Navarro, “failing schools” are those whose students do everything asked of them, but because of a lack of necessary resources and support, still don’t qualify to attend state colleges, such as Clemson University and the University of South Carolina in the Palmetto State.

“That just can’t be,” says Navarro. “We have 1,700 under-resourced kids that we educate, and so it was thrilling for Madison and Tracy [Austin] come out to see what we’re doing.”

When Keys visited Meeting Street Academy, it wasn’t just because she happened to be in town. She flew cross-country, overnight from San Diego, to visit the students and let them know that what translates to success on the tennis court is the same as in the classroom: hard work, practice, listening to feedback and prioritizing your time properly.

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“We toured the school, and it was just incredible,” said Austin, a former US Open champion. “It reminded me of an Andre Agassi-type school. The teachers were phenomenal, the kids were so polite. Those kids will go to college, and they wouldn’t have normally had that opportunity.”

Naturally, the 2017 US Open runner-up also stopped by the school’s first-grade P.E. class to show them one sport they can pursue, thanks to Meeting Street Academy’s commitment to its students.

“She talked about setting big goals, and working hard to accomplish those goals,” said Dirk Bedford, principal of the Meeting Street Academy. “She also encouraged our kids to seek opportunities to provide acts of kindness.”

There’s that word again: kindness. It’s a foundation of the 25-year-old—and also in the name of her foundation, Kindness Wins. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit emphasizes the importance of kind gestures, no matter how big or small, by funding grants and awards for worthwhile organizations and individuals.

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As promoting kindness goes, it’s hard to top what’s happening at the Credit One Bank Invitational. When tournament director Bob Moran suggested the name “Team Kindness” to Keys, it was a natural fit.

Heading into Saturday, Team Kindness trailed Team Peace 14-10. With matches now worth three points, a quick start was imperative for Keys’ squad, and she matched the moment—playing first, Keys defeated not just any opponent, but Sofia Kenin, this year’s Australian Open champion.

But it wasn't easy, and Keys' ability to eventually achieve her goal is a lesson any student can learn from. In the first set and for most of the second, Keys’ serve and forehand were clicking, as you might expect. But so was her backhand, both as a rally shot to keep Kenin from moving forward, and as a point-ending weapon. After a bevy of winners, Keys took a seemingly unassailable 6-3, 4-0 lead, had a point for 5-0, and earned a match point.

Kenin, one of tennis' brightest spots of 2020, shook it all off, and remarkably won the second set 7-5.

"When you play someone like Sonya, you know she’s going to up her level, especially when it matters," said Keys. "She definitely did that."

Credit One Bank Invitational

But Keys remained calm, and found way to turn a calamity into an opportunity. Shaking off the second-set collapse, she ran through the match tiebreaker, 10-2.

"The points that I earlier lost in the second set, they weren’t necessarily bad points," she said. "[I] kind of gave myself a little bit of grace knowing that I haven’t had those big moments under my belt right now, but making sure I know that these matches come in handy later when the tour comes back."

It was the only way Keys could approach the situation, but it didn't hurt that the pressure-packed moment, even at a non-tour event, came in Charleston. Austin, who called the match on Tennis Channel, summed it all up.

“She just really feels so at home.”