23-Year-Old Tennis Star Madison Keys On The Power Of Perseverance & Recognizing Your Inner Strength

Photographed by Anna Ottum.
Update: Madison Keys advanced to the 2018 US Open Semi Final on September 6.
How would you feel if, in just a few short years of your career, you were already primed to surpass the achievements of your childhood heroes? That’s the case for superstar tennis player Madison Keys, whose journey to the top has taken her from an elite training academy in Florida to Wimbledon to nearly every other high-profile tournament there is. Currently, Keys is ranked No. 14 worldwide, above several of the players she grew up admiring. She’s also only 23 years old. Plus, it’s US Open season, which means that now more than ever, her sights are laser focused on finally taking center stage — particularly after last year.
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During 2017’s pivotal Grand Slam event, Keys battled her way through each intense bracket, eventually being defeated in the final round by another rising talent. Since then, she has honed her craft even further and gained a new perspective from the experience. “In tennis, I feel like you learn a lot more from a loss than [from a win],” she says. “You figure out what you need to learn from it, and then you move on. And because you know you’ve been in that situation before, the next time [you] don’t feel so nervous.”
Off the court, the Rock Island, Illinois native comes off as a friendly, down-to-earth, and relatable twentysomething. She’s vocal about struggles she has faced in her career and beyond and is a strong advocate for female empowerment and anti-bullying. When we caught up with her, she was on her way to a summit hosted by evian, the United States Tennis Association, and FearlesslyGirl, an organization dedicated to creating more supportive environments for young girls. As the sole FearlesslyGirl ambassador, Keys was enlisted to speak to a crowd of students about developing inner strength and fostering supportive friendships. Ahead, we chatted with her about her career, why it’s so important to stand up for yourself, and what she hopes for the future when it comes to women in sports.
You started playing tennis when you were 4 years old. How were you able to keep yourself motivated at such a young age?
“Until I was about 9, I hated practice. I actually had to be bribed to go, because halfway through, I would lose focus and start doing cartwheels or something else. [To help prevent that,] I would get ‘tokens’ or laminated pieces of paper, which essentially were part of a rewards system. If I could earn so many, I could then go and buy something I wanted.
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“At 10, I decided that I wanted to be a professional tennis player and became much more self-motivated. We moved to Florida [from Illinois] shortly after, and I started training full time at an academy. I realized then that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was — or that I needed to be to turn pro. The competition was so much better, and I had to adjust very quickly. Not practicing wasn’t an option; it became a habit.”
Photographed by Anna Ottum.
Did you have to make any major life adjustments to become a professional athlete?
“Turning pro at 14, I definitely had to grow up fast. I didn’t spend a lot of time at home because of traveling, and I had to be really responsible with making sure things like homework got done. But I was also pretty lucky — being at a [training] academy until I was almost 18 gave me a way to do what I loved without being totally isolated. I got to go to dances and socialize, which made me feel like I still had a ‘normal’ teenage life.”
Do you ever encounter self-doubt and insecurities?
“100% — especially last year. Coming back from [a second wrist surgery in 10 months], I had a span [prior to the 2017 Open] where I was struggling to win matches and just wasn’t feeling super confident in myself. At one point, I [felt] like I was never going to win a tennis match ever again. It would be crazy to say that you’re never going to feel like that, but you just have to pick yourself up and remember to keep going.”
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How do you calm your nerves before hitting the court? What goes into your pre-match routine?
“Every single match that I’ve ever played, I’ve been so nervous. Last year, before the US Open final, I was literally almost in tears, although I had already played six matches on the exact same court. And then, obviously, I was very sad after [losing]. But overall, it was another proud experience for me. [My competitor,] who is also a friend, helped me through [the loss], and the next time I’m in that situation, I know I’ll be able to handle it a little bit better.
“I don’t have many superstitions, but if I start a tournament with any sort of nail polish, it has to stay on as is. Taking off my polish or painting over it are both things I refuse to do no matter how chipped it looks. Aside from that, my biggest thing is trying to stay loose and calm — thinking about the match enough so that I’m ready but not obsessing over it. I always play my best tennis when I’m relaxed and remembering how much fun I’m having.”

At one point, I [felt] like I was never going to win a tennis match ever again.

In 2016, you made your debut on the Women’s Tennis Association’s Top 10 list, joining an elite group of five American women to ever do so. What’s it like to have achieved this level of success before turning 25?
“It’s funny, because in tennis, I don’t usually hear, ‘Oh, you’re still so young; you have so many more years ahead of you.’ But I think now [within the sport], you definitely find your stride at an older age. So for me, I’m constantly trying to balance expectations of what I want with giving myself time to figure it out.
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“Every time I achieve a goal of mine, I add three more. I’m really happy and proud of myself that I was able to do what I’ve done, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.”
You’ve already played against a number of your heroes, including one who referred to you as someone who’ll reach No. 1 one day. How does that feel?
“To have someone who has not only [reached No. 1] but dominated [the sport] on her way there — while continuing to be an inspiration for women and men across the board — say that has definitely felt nice and has been a big motivator for me.”
Photographed by Anna Ottum.
How did you become an ambassador for FearlesslyGirl, and why do you think it’s so important to foster supportive environments for young women?
“I got involved [back in 2016] because I wanted to do something to make the world a little bit better — instead of just dwelling in some of the crappy things that [were] happening. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Having two younger sisters, I wanted girls everywhere to know that there was someone who was listening — someone who understood their struggles.
“Giving girls the opportunity to talk to each other, ask questions, and open up [about bullying and other struggles] in a span of two hours [at each summit held by FearlesslyGirl], you see them grow immensely. You can see that they feel more comfortable in their own skin.”

I’m constantly trying to balance expectations of what I want with giving myself time to figure it out.

What’s your connection to the organization’s stance on eliminating bullying?
“Growing up, I never experienced bullying personally, but I went to school long enough that I would occasionally see it happen and step in to stop it. At 14, when I turned pro, I started receiving a lot of online bullying — whether it was people calling me fat or ugly or saying that my teeth were weird. Even today if I lose a match, it gets really dramatic very quickly.
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“After I started responding to [negative comments online], I remember getting tweets from girls saying that I’ve made them realize that not saying anything — to their principals, parents, friends, or the person who has been bullying them — isn’t going to help. Once I got that kind of feedback, I decided that talking about [bullying] was something I was going to continue doing even if no one approved of it.”
You’ve been vocal about several issues regarding gender inequality and gender roles within sports. What changes do you hope to see in the future?
“As a whole and across the board, we have to get better, because it’s very obvious that [women] aren’t [treated] equal. Having a platform means that I won’t just sit back and say everything’s okay. I think the biggest thing is addressing [inequality] — not telling [professional athletes] to ignore the issue and ‘go play with a basketball’ or something.”

I wanted girls everywhere to know that there was someone who was listening — someone who understood their struggles.

You’re also a brand ambassador for evian’s latest campaign, “I Wanna #LiveYoung.” What does living young mean to you?
“The campaign’s mission is really about doing what you want and whatever makes you happy. It’s about showing that you can have multiple sides, and neither side is more important than the other. For me, that’s being able to be as silly as I want while being a total badass at the same time.”
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. If I’m a good person, people will remember me because of that — not because I hit a tennis ball over a net.”
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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