Madison Keys has had a strong start to the 2014 season, reaching the semifinals in Sydney.
© Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
AUSTRALIA -- Many veterans cherish the length of the off-season, but some of the youngsters prefer a never-ending story. Pro tennis is still pretty new to them, they are visiting many beautiful locales for the first time, and every day feels like a golden opportunity to shine.
One of those player is 18-year-old Madison Keys. After a couple months of working hard at the USTA Player Development Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., during the off-season, the youngest member of the WTA’s Top 40 was looking forward to the 24-hour plane ride Down Under.
“I could not wait,” Keys said. “I was so excited to get on the plane. [Training in Boca] was great, and I really benefited from it, but I was really missing tournaments. It was 10 weeks of no matches. That's a long time. People are saying we are crazy for having such a long season, but I don’t think one of us would want a longer off-season.”
Some veterans do say that, especially after a decade or so of grinding around the world, but Keys experienced her first full season as a pro in 2013 and played a ton -- 18 tournaments that began in Auckland, New Zealand, at the start of January, when she was ranked No. 149, and ended in Osaka, Japan, in mid-October, when she reached the semifinals and finished at a career-high ranking of No. 37.
Keys also reached three quarterfinals in Sydney, Charleston and Birmingham and the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon. During 2013, she scored wins over a slew of notable players, including No. 17 Lucie Safarova, former Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng Jie, former Roland Garros champion Li Na, No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 23 Dominika Cibulkova.
“It was by far the most matches I played. I got so much experience, and to do so well at the end of the year, it’s good to know that I am able to do that and dig deep,” Keys said. “I hope I can find that again at the beginning of this year.”
Keys already owns one of the biggest serves on tour. At the opening tournament of 2014 in Brisbane, she cracked one at 119.9 mph, which put her just behind the indomitable Serena Williams for the fastest serve of the season so far. Her forehand is devastating, too, and she isn’t shy about letting loose on her backhand and return.
But the tall (5-foot-11) free swinger can be inconsistent and is trying to add more variety, even attempting to incorporate a one-handed backhand slice into her repertoire.
“I hit a pretty good slice,” she said. “But, in practice, you can just do it, and there are no consequences. Getting it done in a match -- it's something I am working on.”
In Boca, Keys worked a lot on her fitness, and she comes into the new season looking in shape and ready to go. Her primary focus was improving her movement as well as her on-court strategy so that she can make split-second decisions as to where to go with what shot.
“Movement is what I really needed to get better,” she said. “I feel being quicker, and I’m getting to more balls. Plus, I'm not getting tired after long points.”
There was a huge group of players who trained in Boca during the off-season besides Keys, including Shelby Rogers, Grace Min, Christina McHale, Melanie Oudin, Maria Sanchez, Ryan Harrison, Rhyne Williams, Denis Kudla, Bjorn Fratangelo, Mitchell Krueger and Jarmere Jenkins.
Most of their days consisted of court time, gym time and track time, but they enjoyed it and developed a good amount of camaraderie.
“It was like a big team,” Keys said. “It was nice to be around people who completely understand the situations you are in. Sometimes we could have fun and relax and get away from tennis, but when we are at the tennis, we support each other because we are so close.”
On some of their free evenings, the players would get together and play board games or cards, which Keys said could get intense, given how competitive tennis players can be. Sometimes the guys would go off and play paintball, but Keys decided not to, she said, “because I didn't want bruises on me for a week.”
Their practice matches were similarly intense, and everyone left it all out on the court. "No mercy" was their mantra, but when they left the courts, they would pal around again. During their off-court workouts, they went at each other again.
“It’s nice when you are on lap 15 of running and you have someone next to you and pushing you," said Keys. "They want to do well, and you want to do well. It’s nice to have the support system.”
The congenial Keys is once again traveling with USTA National Coach Juan Todero, and after losing her first match in Brisbane, she rebounded in a big way in Sydney, reaching the semifinals, where she took down seventh seed Simona Halep, talented 20-year-old Ajla Tomljanovic and American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who retired in the first set.
Keys believes she is a better player than she was in 2013, and when she plays her first match in Melbourne, it’s conceivable that she will have already cracked the Top 30. She says that she is hopeful she will bust into the Top 5 someday but must be patient and give herself room to mature.
“I have a better understanding of my game,” she said. “Every day is not going to be perfect, and I will be upset how I play some days, but my focus is making those days less and less and being more consistent. Hopefully it will work this year. I’m trying to be better at managing tight moments and being able to slow down those moments.”
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