Madi finds the Keys back to form

 - Reem Abulleil

Former world No.7 is one of three Americans to reach the AO quarter-finals this week

Madison Keys Australian Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

On the back of a challenging 2021 season that saw her post just 11 victories across seven months, Madison Keys knew she had to find a way to rediscover the joy both on and off the court.

The former US Open finalist started last year by testing positive for Covid-19, which forced her to miss the entire Aussie summer swing, including the Australian Open. When she finally kicked off her season in Doha in March, Keys felt like everyone else had been given a head-start.

“I felt like I just had this pressure on me to almost catch up to everyone else,” Keys reflects on her difficult 2021.

“Because I felt like everyone else had had such a good year and I just kept comparing myself to everyone else and their success and all of that and it just felt like the deeper I got into the season, the more pressure I was putting on myself and started just getting way too focused on winning and losing and ranking and this and that and losing points and all of that.”

Being in bubbles at most tournaments also didn’t help.

“I don't really thrive when my entire life becomes about tennis,” Keys explained.

“I start thinking about it too much. It just starts becoming a little bit overwhelming for me. Not being able to kind of get out, go for walks, separate myself from the tournament a little bit, got really difficult. Then it kind of spiralled from there. It just felt like it was just another brick on top of another brick. Everything got a little bit heavier and heavier and harder to deal with.

“I was just at a very high anxiety level all of the time. I wasn't sleeping as well. It just felt like there was literally a weight on my chest just because I became so focused and obsessed with it that I wasn't enjoying really anything because it's all that I was thinking about.”

Madison Keys Australian Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

A much-needed reset

By the end of the year, the American former world No.7 had dropped outside the top 50. She decided she would utilise her offseason to hit the reset button and hopefully find her way back to a place where she is enjoying her life as a professional tennis player.

“I got to go to Montana and enjoy the outdoors a little bit, which really helped me just clear my mind, just get back to being a happy person off the court, then enjoying tennis again on the court,” said the 26-year-old.

There’s a quote Keys came across on TikTok that struck a chord with her: “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

“It just really made me change my perspective of, why am I focused on comparing everything that I've done and I'm doing to everyone else around me when it's just making me miserable? Why would why am I going to keep doing that?” Keys asked herself.

“And then I talked to my coach, who has been great. And the biggest thing that he's really helped me with is before every match, he says, ‘There is no need to and there is no have to and it's just another match and we're gonna go out and it's a new day and we're just gonna go focus on this singular match’.”

Lifting the 'dark cloud'

A shift in perspective was exactly what the doctor order for Keys and she began 2022 with a bang, picking up a title in Adelaide and storming into the Australian Open quarter-finals, where she takes on No.4 seed and reigning Roland-Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova on Tuesday.

In just the opening three weeks of the season, Keys has already racked up 10 match-wins against just one loss. She is one victory shy of matching her tally of wins from her entire 2021 campaign.

“My biggest mindset change is just trying to enjoy tennis, take some of that just internal pressure that I was putting on myself. It was honestly freezing me,” Keys told reporters on Sunday after easing past the eighth-seeded Paula Badosa in the fourth round at Melbourne Park.

“I felt like I couldn't play at all. Just taking that away and putting tennis into perspective: that it's a sport, something that when I was little I enjoyed doing and loved doing it.

“I was letting it become this dark cloud over me. Just trying to push all of that away and leave that behind last year and start fresh this year.”

Ready for Krejcikova

It worked! Over the past few weeks in Australia, Keys has cut a relaxed and cheerful figure off court, and has been able to click into beast mode on the match court.

During her down time this Australian Open, she has been hitting all her favourite restaurants – Chin Chin, Rockpool and Tonka are some of her go-to spots – and binge-watching the TV show ‘Succession’.

She has dropped just one set en route to the quarter-finals, spent just six and a half hours on court through four matches, and leads the field (alongside Ashleigh Barty and Elise Mertens) with 24 aces struck.

She’s back to terrorising her opponents with her lightning-fast forehand – she has hit 64 winners off that wing alone so far this fortnight – and is looking forward to her first singles encounter with Krejcikova.

“I think she's kind of just making tennis look easy. It seems like no matter what people are doing, she very quickly figures it out and has, like, another game plan to quickly implement. So that would be tough to play against,” Keys said of Krejcikova.

Meanwhile, two more Americans have also returned to the Australian Open quarter-finals in the form of Jessica Pegula and Danielle Collins.

The 21st-seeded Pegula is into the last-eight stage in Melbourne for a second consecutive year and takes on world No.1 Barty on Tuesday.

Pegula is thrilled she was able to back up her breakthrough performance from last season and is looking forward to potentially finishing the Australian Open as the top American. The 27-year-old draws inspiration from her compatriots and is enjoying the fact they are all doing so well Down Under.

“I think it's really cool,” said Pegula. “It's so great to see first of all Amanda (Anisimova) had a really tough year last year. She had a great win against Naomi (Osaka). That match was neck-and-neck. Honestly she deserved to win. It's just great to see them play.

“Honestly I took a lot of inspiration from watching that match as well because the hitting was incredible. Then to turn around to see Danielle and (Clara) Tauson hitting in a crazy match really got me fired up for today. I think we all root for each other.”

No.27 seed Collins, a semi-finalist at the Australian Open in 2019, overcame Mertens in three sets on Monday and will next square off with French veteran Alize Cornet.