SINGAPORE - Madison Keys' slow and steady climb up the Road to Singapore began in the most unexpected place: the European clay season. A fierce hitter who excels on grass and hardcourts, Keys spent the last three seasons dreading the clay season, unmoored by her unrefined movement and necessary patience on the surface.
But something clicked for Keys at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, where she proceeded to beat Andrea Petkovic, Petra Kvitova, Timea Babos, and eventual Roland Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza, to make her first final on the terre battue. From there everything began falling into place.
"I kind of had a slow start to my season," Keys told reporters at All-Access Hour at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, referring to a left forearm injury she sustained off-court during the off-season. "[Singapore] wasn't really on the radar. Then even after Rome when I made the finals I noticed I was slowly kind of moving up in the race.
"After winning in Birmingham I was kind of definitely in it at that point. So that's when I really knew that I could make it, and it became a big goal of mine to be able to get here."
Keys secured her spot by advancing to the Generali Ladies Linz final last week. Illness forced her to withdraw from the tournament. She spoke with a raspy voice but reassured reporters that she is ready to start her tournament on Sunday against Simona Halep.
"[I] was definitely not feeling good in Linz," Keys said. "[I've] had a couple days to recover and I am feeling a lot better."
? WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) October 22, 2016
Keys has been drawn in the Red Group, which includes Halep, World No.1 Angelique Kerber, and Dominika Cibulkova. It's a tough group for Keys, who is a combined 2-9 against Kerber and Halep, though she is 3-0 against Cibulkova.
"It's a big opportunity," Keys said, when asked how she felt about landing in a group with Kerber and Halep. "It shows these are some of the best players of the year, and the good news is that I have beaten them before. I do know I can do it."
On Sunday, Keys will be looking to get revenge on Halep, who has beaten her in all three of their meetings this year.
"I'm looking forward to it," she said "Just playing her in Wuhan, I think she played really well there, but I think a big part was that I got really passive and I got behind the baseline and let her start dictating. That's going to be something I'm going to have to step up and go for my shots in the smartest way I can, really just believe that I can do it."
Reflecting on her consistent season, which saw her make the second week of all four majors and eight of 12 tournaments outside of the Slams, Keys pointed to her rankings rise. After winning the Aegon Classic in June she became the first American since Serena Williams in 1999 to make her Top 10 debut.
"I just look at it as a great accomplishment and a huge opportunity to go out and just play tennis and have fun and maybe inspire some more young American girls to pick up some racquets," Keys said.
"I think highlights were getting into the Top 10 for sure, winning my second title. I think another big highlight was making a final on red clay...in the past I haven't always loved red clay. Slowly I'm beginning to love it. I think probably the toughest moment has been losing that third and fourth match in Rio," she said, referring to her run to the semifinals only to lose the bronze medal match. "Definitely one of the toughest matches that I've had to play."
Defs not ok right now. But I left it all out there and I'm proud and honored I got to represent my country. Thanks for the love ???#TeamUSA
Speaking of adversity, the discussion turned to the topic of cyberbullying. Keys has occasionally posted screen grabs of the horrible tweets she receives on social media after losses, and more players have done the same over recent months. The 21-year-old says it's a problem she hopes social media companies address soon.
"I think just showing that it's kind of a daily struggle that all of us are dealing with," Keys said when asked why she does posts the vile comments, which can veer into pure racism and sexism, particularly from men who have lost money betting on her matches. "Sometimes it just becomes too much. I just think there has to be a way to kind of monitor it a little bit more. It seems like a lot of times we'll report a person and we get a response that they couldn't find enough evidence that they did anything.
"So I think social media has to be able to kind of help us in that sense. But also just [to show] that it's happening, and we as people have to do the best that we can to stop it, which is a big part of why I'm doing FearlesslyGIRL, going into schools where cyberbullying is also happening, and stopping it at a younger age I think could be really beneficial."