Chris Evert has seen hundreds of overhyped young tennis “phenoms” fizzle over the years, so it takes somebody pretty special to capture her attention. Madison Keys is one of those kids, which is why Evert was not shocked to see her reach the 2015 Australian Open semifinals a month shy of her 20th birthday.
And she wouldn’t be surprised to see Keys, now ranked No. 18 in the world, make it deep into the second week at the Miami Open in Key Biscayne. Patrick McEnroe takes it a step further.
“I certainly think within the next 24 months, two and a half to three years, absolutely, Madison can win a major,” McEnroe said.
Keys was 12 when Evert first saw her. She had moved from Rock Island, Illinois, to Boca Raton with her mother and two younger siblings to train at Evert’s academy. Evert’s brother, John, had seen Keys as an 8-year-old summer camper and urged her to join their academy.
At 13, within a year of moving, she made the 16-Under finals of the Orange Bowl tournament and signed with Maria Sharapova’s agent, Max Eisenbud. By 14, she stood 5-10, clocked 114 mph on her serve and had won her first pro match.
“I think everybody that saw her at that point thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s so much raw power that if she could just control it and harness it, she’s going to be a great player,’ ” said Evert, an ESPN commentator. “Very much like a Serena [Williams], she has the second-best serve out there, which she’s going to win a lot of free points holding her serve.”
Other than the Williams sisters and Sharapova, it is hard to find anyone in the women’s game who strikes the ball harder.
“She has so much power, more so than any of the other top players, aside from Serena and Venus [Williams], her whole game, not counting Maria Sharapova obviously on the groundstrokes,” Evert said. “She’s got it all. She has natural ease and power in her shots.”
Analyzing as much tennis as she has from the broadcast booth, Pam Shriver is not easily wowed. She was by Keys at the 2013 Australian Open, when as a 105th-ranked 17-year-old she breezed past 30th-ranked Tamira Paszek 6-2, 6-1.
“The first time I really came out of a match with my jaw sort of dropping was a couple years ago at the Australian Open when she beat Paszek, beat her routinely,” Shriver said. “She beat her with two weapons: the serve and the forehand. In my mind, in women’s tennis especially, when you can come through with those two big weapons, it can set you apart.
“I came out feeling fantastic that the U.S. had a true prospect to get to the top spot.”
Keys picked up her first racket (a racquetball racket) when she was 4 years old. Her parents, Rick and Christine, both attorneys, said she saw a tennis match on TV, liked Venus Williams’ dress, and went for the racket. Before long, she was playing at a local club and beating the other kids with ease.
Rick Keys was an all-conference basketball player at Augustana College, so he knew what it takes to play sports at a high level. In order to better Madison’s game, she attended camps at the Evert Academy and eventually chose to go there full time. Christine took a leave from the family law firm and moved to Boca Raton with Madison and her younger sisters Montana and Hunter.
Her career progressed slowly and steadily. She eventually switched to U.S. Tennis Association coaches Juan Todero and Jay Gooding, who helped get her to the top 40.
Last November, she made a coaching switch that grabbed international headlines.
She is training in Southern California with former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport and her husband, Jon Leach. Davenport was known for her big serve and forehand. So far, the pairing seems to be going very well. In Australia, Keys beat two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and then beat Venus Williams before losing to Serena in the semis.
“We get along really well and we play similar games, so it’s really nice to have someone who not only plays somewhat like me, but also has gone through it, knows the nerves, the stresses, all of that,” Keys said of Davenport.
She is getting used to life as a top-20 player.
“Eventually in your career, it kind of switches from being the young up-and-comer to someone who has had results and the other person is trying to raise their level of play,” Keys said. “I think it’s a privilege. I’m just going to do my best to try to stay here.”
On the rise
More young men and women who could make a splash at the Miami Open in Key Biscayne:
Borna Coric: This 18-year-old from Croatia is the youngest player in the Top 100 right now and was named ATP Star of Tomorrow. He is a former world junior No. 1 and won the 2013 U.S. Open Jr. title.
Belinda Bencic: Only 17, this Swiss Miss has drawn comparisons to Martina Hingis. She won WTA Newcomer of the Year and is ranked No. 32. She reached the third round at Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, the youngest to do that since Hingis in 1997. Among her U.S. Open victims were Top 10 players Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic.
Nick Kyrgios: Anybody who beats Rafael Nadal gets attention, especially if the victor is a 19-year-old unknown. The entertaining Australian followed up his Wimbledon win over Nadal with a third-round fnish at the U.S. Open.
Alexander “Sascha” Zverev: This German rising star is 17 and stands 6-6. He won the Australian Open jr., title. His father and coach, Alexander Sr., played on the USSR Davis Cup team in the 1980s. His brother, Mischa, was a top 50 player.
Zarina Diyas: The 21-year-old Kazakhstani leaped from No. 163 to No. 34 in one season. She reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and third round at the Australian Open and U.S. Open.