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Madison Keys is favoured to go far at AO2018 Madison Keys is favoured to go far at AO2018

Persistence is the Key for Madison

Features

Madison Keys’ last post-match interview of 2017 didn’t start until she had composed herself, her wrist injury having flared again during an upset loss to qualifier Varvara Lepchenko in Wuhan. It didn’t end until the US Open runner-up had shared some revealing, candid and heartfelt insights.

Earlier in September, Keys had entered her maiden major final as the favourite in an all-American affair against her close friend Sloane Stephens at Flushing Meadows. The powerful 22-year-old had the bigger game, the far higher ranking and the slightly more compelling form line, having dropped just nine games in her two previous matches.

Then she was thrashed 6-3 6-0 on vast Arthur Ashe Stadium, before a global TV audience. And the tears flowed.

“It was a lot of emotions because obviously I was really happy that I got there, really disappointed that that’s how it went,’’ Keys reflected three weeks later. “To do so well and to have all those great matches and then to have that be my last match – that was really difficult.’’

The two pals’ long and emotional embrace at the net was one of the season’s more touching moments, while one of the classier acts was Stephens’ move to sit beside her devastated opponent and chat warmly as they waited for the presentation.

And if it was Keys who ultimately had to come to terms with her inability to handle the occasion, or do herself justice in the biggest match of her life, then nor did she lack support.

Her coach, former great Lindsay Davenport, shared stories from one of her own losses, when the desire to cry with disappointment almost won. Multiple major champion Kim Clijsters reminded Keys that she had lost her first four deciders, and thus could empathise with every shaky, streaky shot.

“The biggest thing was definitely that they had all been there, too,’’ Keys said. “And you never think of those people and think ‘wow they had a horrible career’. You always think of them as ‘they figured things out, they had tough moments, but overall they had a great career and they did great things’.

“I think those are the experiences you learn from and when you’re in a similar situation again, you may be have a better coping mechanism.’’

As soon as she returned home to Florida, Keys says she turned off her phone and “just, like, slept for two days”. It was physical exhaustion after a string of late-night matches, but also more than that, for there are different types of fatigue. Her own? “I would say the emotional was more difficult.’’

Mary-Jo Fernandez’s pride in how well Keys held everything together rather than self-flagellating and smashing racquets made her realise that there was still plenty to appreciate, while negotiating “one of the toughest moments” of her life to speak publicly afterwards reminded the 16th seed to also be proud of herself.

I think those are the experiences you learn from and when you’re in a similar situation again, you may be have a better coping mechanism.
Madison Keys reflects on her US Open 2017 finals loss.

Yet, just as the end of 2016 was nobbled by that serious wrist injury that required surgery, there would be just one more match after New York in a season that did not start until Indian Wells, and was then interrupted by a second operation in June.

The joint was still weak and painful during her Wuhan defeat, forcing Keys to abandon her quest for Singapore or Zhuhai qualification, and watch from afar the USA’s first Fed Cup title since 2000. From only 11 tournaments, including a third career title in Stanford, the former world No.7 maintained a top 20 finish for the third consecutive season.

So to 2018, and a return after a year’s absence to Melbourne Park - the scene of her breakthrough semifinal appearance in 2015. In between, the Keys pre-season has included another significant event that had nothing to do with hitting tennis balls.

Having long called out the behaviour of cyber trolls, Keys is also an ambassador for empowerment organisation FearlesslyGIRL USA, and in November the popular role model co-hosted a three-day fundraising event in her home state of Illinois hailed as America’s Biggest Anti-Bullying Assembly.

On one school visit the previous year, Keys was presented with a themed t-shirt with the words 'Nevertheless, she persisted' written across the back. And so has Keys, after persistent injuries and what she ruefully describes as a “bitter-sweet” Slam finals debut. If it's true that we all get what we deserve in the end, then surely her time will come.

Madison Keys opens her 2018 season at the Brisbane International from 31 December.