From April 2008, originally printed in Play Tennis Florida magazine, by Richard Vach
reprinted with permission of the author
Madison Keys went from unknown to top class in just 2-1/2 years, winning back-to-back Eddie Herr and Jr. Orange Bowl Titles
A visit to the Evert Academy in Boca Raton is an eye-opening, somewhat intimidating experience for your average adult tennis player, on this morning especially. Girls no older than 11 and 12 years old wallop balls from the baseline with a consistent ferocity, smacking them harder than little girls should be physically able to hit a ball.
Dasha Sharapova, small for a 12 year old but a miniature version of her gangly-limbed cousin Maria, pounds balls with three other girls under the guidance of instructors before the court clears. Madison Keys, the consecutive winner of last year’s Eddie Herr and Junior Orange Bowl international tournaments, and the de facto 12-and-under world No. 1 in the eyes of many for 2007, takes to the court.
Keys is a physical specimen for 13 years old, a head taller than many of her contemporaries, allowing her to generate power off the ground, rain down serves, and most impressively of all, play an all-court game. It is a rarity at this age and a harbinger of greater things to come.
Keys warms up before she is soon joined by Chris Evert, who periodically plays groundstroke games against her charges to gauge their progress and reveal strengths and weaknesses. It’s a classic confrontation — the ferocious, whippy strokes of Keys versus the consistent, flat knuckleballs of Evert. But raw power is no match for control and a deft court sense as Evert moves her opponent around, drawing her into the net or ending points with dropshot winners. A bit of advice here, an encouragement to move forward there, and the hitting exhibition ends as Evert’s boyfriend, golfing legend Greg Norman, watches from the sidelines.
“She’s coming along great,” says Evert of Keys, who has quickly risen to prominence since relocating from Illinois 2-1/2 years ago to become a full-time Evert Academy student. “What we have to watch out for is putting too much pressure on her, which everyone is aware of. She’s got great parents, her mom supports her and is just a mom.”
Evert knows better than anyone the pitfalls that lie between a top-ranked junior and a successful pro career. In Keys, Chris and John Evert see monthly improvements in the physical and, equally important, the mental aspects of their charge.
“What I do is I come in and play points with her because that’s how I see where her improvement is,” Chris Evert says.
“I think you have to look at the whole thing: the technique, the balance, the power, and the other thing you have to look at is the results. I don’t think we have any problem with the results,” says Evert, laughing. “She got to firmly establish herself as the No. 1 player in the world last year in the 12-and-unders.”
John Evert, who founded the Evert Academy, is Keys’ stroke technician along with other key day-to-day coaches, and evaluated Keys when she entered the Academy full-time as a nine year old.
“I thought she was very athletic, a raw talent physically,” John Evert says. “She definitely needed to be cleaned up with her strokes. She had extreme grips, and she really needed to work on her footwork and positioning. She really had no idea what her game style was in terms of how she was going to be successful. She would hit two or three balls then just run into the net.”
Keys is fond of the story of her net-rushing entry into the Academy.
“Yes,” Keys says, bursting into laughter. “I didn’t like groundstrokes, I didn’t like long points that much, so I would just run into the net and try and volley. I’m not the person who wants to stay on the baseline and rally crosscourt for 50 balls. You get into the net and you put it away.”
It’s a unique sight to see the just-turned-13-year-old practicing crisp volleys with classic form or ending points at the net, where even many baseline-hugging pro players would have let their opponent float a defensive shot back to continue the point.
“I think it was a great sign that she is moving forward all the time, because I think physically she is going to be big and strong, and she does have a live arm in terms of having a big serve and forehand,” John Evert says. “It will contribute to her having an attacking style and not just being a baseliner.”
It is not out of the ordinary to hear of top juniors outlining their goal of being No. 1 in the world, and Keys is no exception. It is, however, out of the ordinary to hear 13-year-old tennis prodigies talking about their after-tennis plans, talking about their favorite “musical genres” and the marvels of baking, her favorite hobby.
But Keys insists she is no different from any other 13-year-old, albeit any straight-A athlete who holds education in the highest regard. She says her Academy schedule generally consists of study times from 6:30-8:30 a.m., 12:30-2 p.m., and 5:30-6:30 or 7 p.m., with tennis in between.
“Yes, I am,” says Keys, rolling her eyes at the mention of her Honor Roll status. “My parents have always said, ‘What are you going to do after you get done playing tennis?’ So I’m really focused on having the schooling to be able to do something after playing tennis. I think I want to be a chef, so my parents say I have to know science, know math and everything. So I’m really focused on schoolwork because after my career in tennis, however long it goes, I have to be able to fall back on something.”
Alright, so most youngsters probably don’t have their careers and fall-back careers outlined by age 13. It isn’t anything out of the ordinary for the girl who at age 3 took one look at the Williams sisters and decided tennis was for her.
“When I was about three years old I walked through [the living room] when they were watching the Wimbledon final and I think it was Venus,” Keys says. “It was Venus playing, and I saw her outfit and I loved it. I asked my dad, ‘Can I have one of those outfits?’ and he said ‘Only if you play tennis.’ And I said ‘OK!’ and I started playing after that. So I didn’t start for the tennis part, I started for the outfits, then I just loved it. And the outfits came as the extra-bonus part.”
Somewhat reserved and very much respectful, Keys lights up when speaking of her idols Venus and Serena.
“I loved the Williams sisters, I still like them,” Keys says. “Some people say that they don’t like them, but I love the Williams sisters. I just love how they overcame a lot of stuff that was in their life. They have their own personalities. I also like the way they dress. I love Venus’ new line.”
And Serena’s outfits?
“She’s had some… interesting outfits,” says Keys, supressing a smile. “But I like them. I like how she can just go out in anything and still play amazing and she doesn’t care what people think.”
While she loves clothes and is a self-professed “shop-aholic,” Keys has no designs on being a designer.
“I like wearing designs,” Keys says. “My 9-year-old sister is much better at that. She can make stuff out of anything; she is a very creative person.”
When and if Keys finds success on the women’s tour, she says she will wear the clothes rather than design them like her idols the William sisters. When and if Keys finds success on the women’s tour, Chris Evert says it will be because of the fine balance of hard work and the semblance of a normal social upbringing.
“It’s the dynamics of family and training,” Evert says. “If the dynamics are good and we have a happy atmosphere around her, and at the same time she works hard, that is all you can ask for. And she’s such a nice girl. I have three boys at home who are fighting all the time, and I come here and I see this nice kid.”
And it’s not easy being a nice kid on the international junior circuit, where competitiveness is no joke.
“They’re not making that up,” Keys says about the junior competitiveness factor. “My grandma used to say, ‘Tennis is such a nice sport,’ and I’d say, ‘No it’s not.’”
“There are girls out there who will start hooking you and they will make horrible calls and just be nasty on the court. They’ll do anything to win. They’ll screw the score up; they’ll do anything. They can come up with a lot of interesting things,” says Keys, laughing. “A few of the girls, if they’re playing on clay, they’ll make [ball] marks with their feet, then circle the marks. I’ve had that before. They’ll switch the score where it’s 30-15 and they’ll say 40-love; they do everything.”
In the end, with the help of parents and coaches, Keys says dealing with opponents of varying ethics has only made her a stronger competitor.
“The first time it kind of bothered me,” Keys says. “My dad was just like, ‘You have to deal with it, it just makes you tougher,’ so it doesn’t really bother me anymore. You almost expect it a little bit more, because juniors, they just hate to lose.”
“We’re all pretty bad at losing,” she says, laughing, “We love winning. A lot more than losing.”
There will be a lot more winning, and losing, in the next 2-3 years before she will be expected to make an impact on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior rankings, with a Top 10 ITF ranking a precursor to success on the pro tour. Short-term, the goal is for Keys to make the transition from being tops in the 12-and-unders to the 14-and-unders.
“There’s a long way to go between now and the pro level,” Chris Evert says. “At 12 years old she’s pretty much an all-court player; she’s not one-dimensional, which is pretty rare in this day and age. Your normal 12-year-old is five foot tall and it’s tough to demand of them, ‘You have to hit the ball hard, have a great serve and know how to volley.’ It’s really been a quick rise, and once you get success at an early age, that is real encouragement. She got to go to France this year to play in the world 14-year-olds, and these things are little incentives. I know for me, as a junior we drove to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with five kids in the car, and it was a thrill to stay at a Holiday Inn.”
Trips to France aside, Keys says her life as a top-ranked junior is not much different from other kids. The coaches at the Evert Academy are banking on that balance of top-level training and ‘normalness’ making the difference.
“I think I’m normal,” says Keys, giggling. “I play tennis, but I do stuff with my sisters. I go out to movies on Fridays with my friends, hang out. I do schoolwork like any other kid would have to do. Actually I probably do more schoolwork than any other kid would have to do. The only different thing is I’m playing tennis five hours a day, and they are in school longer than I am.”
This story appears in the April 2008 issue of Play Tennis Florida magazine.
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