LONDON, Great Britain - Madison Keys is beyond happy to be back on her beloved grass at her favorite tournament at Wimbledon. Especially considering she had to go back under the knife for a second wrist surgery just four weeks ago.
The 22-year-old American revealed to WTA Insider that she underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on her left wrist five days after losing in the second round of the French Open last month to remove scar tissue and release a nerve from scarring that occurred after her first wrist surgery over the off-season.
"Unfortunately, the last cortisone shot I got in Wuhan last year destroyed a lot of the fat that was protecting the nerve in my wrist," Keys told WTA Insider. "Anytime my hand got twisted the wrong way I felt terrible pain.
"During the first surgery, they wrapped the nerve in a tube to give it protection but it was still really close to the skin. The way it ended up healing, the tube and the nerve adhered to each other and the tube then adhered to the scar. One branch of the nerve then grew into my joint, so when I would stretch to hit a shot my arm would go numb."
"My doctor removed a lot of the scar tissue, loosened it up, and then took fat from my stomach and injected it in my wrist. I couldn't do anything for 10 days."
Keys enjoyed the best season of her career in 2016, finishing in the Top 10 and qualifying for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global for the first time. From the outside, it was the season of consistent, high-level tennis that everyone knew Keys was capable of since she showed her prodigious talent and power as a teenager. What people didn't know was how much pain Keys had to endure to get it done.
"So much of last year for me was amazing, but I was in so much pain," Keys said. "I would finish a match in Beijing and then be in tears."
Keys underwent wrist surgery last November and began her season at the BNP Paribas Open in March. Despite making the Round of 16 in the California desert, Keys knew she had rushed her comeback, and the pain began to creep back into her wrist during the clay court season. Her doctor and team assured her the pain was simply the natural result of surgery, but Keys remained skeptical. This wasn't just soreness or fatigue.
"It solidified for me in Paris after I won the first set [against Petra Martic in the second round] and I was up in the second set. I hit a ball and it hurt so much and mentally, it just tapped me.
"I had been playing in pain for so long, since the 2015 US Open, and I looked at Lindsay [Davenport] and I almost started crying. It was just devastating. In that moment I didn't think I was making [the pain] up or making it out to be worse than it was. That was the moment I thought I couldn't do this anymore. I need to fix this. I don't care if it's the middle of the season.
"I was coming out of anesthesia [after my surgery] but I wasn't quite awake yet and the doctor was talking to my mom. He said 'I don't know how she was playing. It was so bad.' I was awake enough to hear him and in a weird way I was like 'Oh, thank God. I'm not insane. My brain is still working. I wasn't making it up.'
"The relief of hearing the doctor say it was so bad was so huge."
Less than 48 hours after her surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Keys bid farewell to her mom and was back home on the couch in Florida. Her wrist was in a cast and she had to wear a compression binder around her waist due to transfer procedure. Any thoughts of hitting the gym or doing any kind of exercise were quickly quashed by her medical team.
"They were really concerned about my stomach filling up with fluid," Keys said. "So I sat on my couch for 10 days going insane." Keys passed the time with Showtime and Netflix, binge-watching Shameless, Orange Is The New Black, and Billions, while begging for permission to get her stitches removed as early as possible. She was chomping at the bit. After all, Wimbledon was just around the corner.
"The first couple of days after the surgery, everyone was assuming Wimbledon was off the table. I was like 'Hold up'. If I was grinding through red clay and I miss the grass season, I'm going to kill everyone," she said, laughing.
"I was in lots of pain on clay, it's my least favorite surface, and I didn't do very well. And now you're telling me that I'm going to miss my favorite surface? Not happening.
"So everyone agreed to let me try with the agreement that, if we get there and you can't hit backhands and it's hurting, you'll pull out. I was like, sure! That sounds like a great plan! But we can go, right? So I had 7-8 days straight of working out and hitting, and then we were on the plane.
"They weren't going to get rid of me. In my mind, I was 100% playing. We got here on Saturday and I hit on Sunday and that first hit on grass -- I was smiling from ear to ear. I was so happy.
"This is one of my favorite places to play. You would have to steal all my racquets. I would probably just call Wilson and ask for more. You would have to come up with so many ways to keep me away."
Keys' love-affair with the turf comes as no surprise. Her two WTA titles came on grass, at Eastbourne in 2014 and Birmingham last year. Her win in Birmingham propelled her to her Top 10 debut and she has made the second week at Wimbledon the last two years. The surface rewards her power and the low bounces force her to clean up the footwork and mechanics that can bog her down on other surfaces.
"My coaches are really happy because I bend my knees on grass because I have to stay low. They're like, 'Wow you're so low!' I'm like 'Yeah, I know. I'm on grass. Don't expect it in like three weeks. Keep your expectations lower than what you're seeing here.
"It just feels so good and it's such classic tennis. A lot of times people think that on clay courts the points are constructed so much better. But I think on grass it's so much fun because it's the sneaky things that work. You can sneak in, you can take a volley out of the air, you can mis-hit a ball and it's a drop shot winner. It's fun. I didn't get to play on grass for so long and so when I got on it for the first time I was like a kid in the candy store."
Despite the excitement, Keys has understandably tempered expectations at Wimbledon. She has not played a grass court lead-up tournament and has not earned back-to-back wins since Indian Wells. After starting the season ranked No.8, she is down to No.18.
"Last night at the WTA Pre-Wimbledon Party, people were asking me what are your expectations? I thought to myself, you don't even know.
"Me sitting right now with my clear head, I'm just happy I'm going to be out there and I'm going to love it. I'm happy that I'm officially pain-free. I feel like I'm in a much better place mentally. It's been a really crazy year and a half. Now I officially think the injury is behind me and I can start to rebuild now.
"But the minute I step out on the court I'm going to expect perfect tennis from myself. That's the biggest challenge for me, balancing my desire to play that high level of tennis and understanding the reality of what's happened. I can only expect so much from myself. My biggest goal is to be really happy and reminding myself that I was grinding on clay to get to this point and this is my reward."