SINGAPORE - Madison Keys has always been a prodigious talent. It would be impossible to ignore her 120mph serve and booming forehand, two of the biggest shots in the women's game. The 21-year-old had shown gradual improvements with each year she spent on tour but two key elements consistently plagued her: inconsistency and ill-timed injury. Could her young body withstand the grind of the tour? And could she learn to harness her power game to be a steady force on the tour?
Keys answered both questions decisively in 2016: Yes, she can.
Keys capped off an achievement-laden season by becoming the seventh player to qualify for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. While her two breakout results last year, where she made the Australian Open semifinals and Wimbledon quarterfinals, grabbed bigger headlines, Keys' 2016 campaign was a truer encapsulation of her talent and potential. Starting the season at No.18, Keys proceeded to make the second week of all four Slams, becoming one of just four women to pull off the feat this season. Outside of the Slams she made the quarterfinals or better at eight of 12 events, highlighted by finals at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome and the Rogers Cup in Montréal. By comparison, Keys made just two quarterfinals last year.
Keys also picked up another title on grass by winning the Aegon Classic. With the Birmingham title, Keys became the first American woman to make her Top 10 debut since Serena Williams in 1999. When the dust settled, Keys finished the regular season with a 46-15 record, an impressive improvement over her 31-18 tally in 2015 and 27-22 in 2014.
"Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time for things to click and sink in," Keys said. "Sometimes it's just how someone words something one time, then it just makes sense to you. I definitely think working with Thomas [Hogstedt] has been a huge benefit for me." Keys hired Hogstedt, who previously coached the likes of Li Na, Maria Sharapova, and Caroline Wozniacki, earlier this spring.
"But I also think it's a process. It's being ready to handle the situation has been a big thing for me. I think I'm putting myself in those positions and handling them a lot better. That just gives me more confidence. The more I'm in those tough situations, the better I feel about them."
Indeed, her ability to come through in tough matches has been the biggest improvement in her season. Keys is 17-5 in three-set matches this season, compared to a sub-.500 mark of 6-10 last year. She still struggles with her rhythm and decision-making in matches, but this year she's been able to limit the dips to brief spells.
"You look at my scores and there's lulls and stuff but I feel like before it would spiral really quickly," Keys said. "Now I'm stopping it and getting better at that. I think it's that confidence of knowing 'Don't panic, you can do this.' I think the biggest thing is knowing that those thoughts of panic are probably going to go into your brain and just accepting it. So that's been the biggest thing. Not fighting it and trying to think I'm going to have the perfect mentality the entire time. That's not going to happen. So just knowing it and accepting it has been a huge thing for me."
After starting the season with a left forearm injury, Keys has seen the hard work in the gym and on the practice court pay off. She is stronger and faster than she's ever been and the body that would let her down has stood tall throughout the season. The ability to trust her body has freed her up to focus on her game, which continues to improve as she matures. There's a self-assuredness about Keys this season, a swagger that wasn't there before. Winning matches and winning them on a consistent clip breeds belief.
? WTA (@WTA) August 24, 2016
"I feel like I've definitely gained confidence in myself," Keys said. "I think especially that I've had a lot of matches this year where I wasn't playing my best tennis, and I was in some bad spots, but being able to figure that out. I think that's given me just a lot of personal confidence."