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.