Madison Keys is in the midst of the best season of her career, becoming the first American woman to break into the Top 10 since Serena Williams and constantly putting herself in contention for the game's biggest prizes. But she doesn't just want to make an impact on the court. Now it's time to make an impact off the court.
The 21-year-old has signed on to become the ambassador of FearlesslyGIRL, an international organization dedicated to empowering young women in their local schools and communities. Founded by in 2004 by Kate Whitfield, the organization takes its message straight to the next generation of young women, holding summits for teenage girls to encourage an open dialogue to foster a sense of community and support during a time when their confidence and self-esteem is at its most critical.
"I think it's so important that we help younger girls get rid of the 'Mean Girl' mentality," Keys told WTA Insider. "You can be a positive, nice person, but still go out and kick butt."
WTA Insider spoke to Keys about the partnership and why she feels the adolescent years are the best time to help girls prepare for a world full of self-doubt, sexism, and opportunity.
WTA Insider: How did you decide to partner with FearlesslyGirl?
Keys: After reading about it, I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it any way that I could. I just think that's it's so special. I feel like I'm going to be able to help younger girls through that difficult time of transitioning and getting through high school. I know that's a tough time for all of us, so being able to help in any way that I can meant a lot to me.
WTA Insider: You have two younger sisters and you've gone through that time yourself. What do you see as the particular issues that affect young girls who are entering high school?
Keys: Your self-confidence is up and down through those years and that's never easy to go through alone. But all of us go through these issues, and I think we isolate ourselves into thinking, 'I'm the only one going through it, no one understands me.' What's so great about the FearlesslyGirl summits is you sit down and these girls get to talk to each other and realize that she's going through the exact same thing I'm going through.
I think being able to talk to each other helps lighten that load. But also you're able to help each other through it and when you have someone else to talk to and relate to it's so much easier to deal with these things. You get more confident asking for help without seeming weak or feeling vulnerable.
Asking for what you deserve is not being needy or bossy. It's the typical 'Oh she's asking for this, she's so bossy.' When a guy does it it's great leadership.
WTA Insider: Why do you think girls internalize their doubts and insecurities instead of openly talking about them?
Keys: I don't know why we do that. I still struggle with it right now. You think no one will understand it, but logically you know someone has gone through it as well. If I just talk to someone I'm sure it would be a lot easier to deal with rather than by myself.
I think it's something I've definitely had to get better at. Even small things like being really nervous before a match, hanging on to that and not talking about it and just pushing it down and avoiding it just makes it bigger and harder to deal with, instead of going to Scott [her trainer] or Thomas [her coach] and saying 'I'm really nervous today, this is what i'm dealing with'. Usually, just talking about it makes it not as big of a deal. Often they actually have advice that can help.
It's amazing that the feeling of being vulnerable and putting yourself out there and saying you're not 100% confident right now and I need help -- doing that is scary. It's not easy. So I think talking to girls when they're younger and getting them more comfortable doing that is really important. Not feeling that asking for help means that you're weak or you don't know what you're doing. Everyone needs help.
So I think talking to these girls during a time when they need help, hopefully if you can get them to open up to each other when they're younger they become more comfortable doing it later in life, and once they're older they can help younger girls do it.
WTA Insider: What do you think you being a professional athlete adds to the discussion?
Keys: One of the things I feel like I can bring to the table is that so often we have this girl versus girl mentality. I just want people to know you can be competitive with other girls but still be friends. That's literally our whole lives. We go out and we play each other and we both want to win this match, but then we come off the court and we know nothing is personal. She can beat me one week and I can beat her the next week and we're exactly the same.
Learning how to do that is so necessary because you can be competitive with another girl and still want the best for them. I can be on a court and want to beat someone and let's say they beat me, but then the next day I can say 'Oh I hope she does well.' It doesn't have to be tearing each other down. You can be competitive and you can want to beat someone but you can also be positive and help push other girls to be good.
WTA Insider: So what exactly is your involvement going to look like?
Keys: I'm going to do as many summits as I can next year. It's fun because there are some in Canada, some in England, and I think they're trying to get some in Australia Too. So it's amazing that I can be a part of it wherever I am. I'll be a part of the summits and get to talk to the girls, which is really what I want to do. I didn't want to be the face of it and not actually do any of it. If at the end of the day I wasn't the face of it but I was still doing it, I'd be really happy.
I think Fearlessly Girl is amazing because they bring in these leaders, juniors in high school, and they help run the summits. So they can help the freshmen and the sophomores do it next year. Its tarts with changing middle schools and high schools. You can change the whole high school and those girls go off to college, and the influence continues. Starting small we can do a lot and it spreads.
Keys is set to compete at the US Open starting next week. For more information about FearlesslyGIRL, click here.