Christine and Madison Keys

Christine Keys embraces her daughter, Madison, immediately following her semifinal win Thursday night at the U.S. Open, just outside the locker room connected to Arthur Ashe Stadium.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Just two years ago, outside of the locker room under Arthur Ashe Stadium, Madison Keys and her mother, Christine, hugged following a fourth-round loss to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

Late Thursday night at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, mother and daughter embraced again in about the same location.

But rather than tears of disappointment and sadness, these were tears of achievement and joy.

Keys, a Rock Island native, dominated fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 to earn her first trip to a Grand Slam final.

“It was a very sweet moment,” Christine said Friday afternoon in a phone interview, “to show how far she has come in two years. It was amazing.”

The 22-year-old Keys is on the verge of capturing the biggest professional tennis tournament in the United States and calling herself a major champion.

Keys meets Sloane Stephens in the final at 3 p.m. Saturday, a match televised on ESPN.

“On a scale of one to 10, this has been about a 10,000,” Christine said. “It has been fun watching her grow as a player and a person.

“She’s had the pressure of being good for a very long time. It is so cool to see her embrace that instead of being afraid of it.”

Christine was in Rio de Janeiro with Keys last August for 12 days during her Olympic run, one that ended with a fourth-place finish.

Because of that, Christine didn’t attend the 2016 U.S. Open for the first time since her daughter has been competing. Instead, she watched from home in the Quad-Cities with boyfriend Tom Thoms.

This year, Christine, an attorney who runs her own firm in downtown Rock Island, and Thoms have been in New York for the past two weeks tracking every step of Keys’ journey.

Staying three hotel rooms down from Keys, they’ve had breakfast and traveled to and from the stadium together each day.

It has resulted in some late nights.

“There have been three nights we’ve gotten back to the hotel at like 2:30 or 3 in the morning,” Christine said. “That’s what makes it a different tournament.”

Christine has tried to stay out of the public eye.

When ESPN cameras pan toward Keys’ box during a match, you won’t see Christine. She has watched the matches from a suite up above.

“I don’t like being in the (players) box,” Christine said. “(Madison) likes routine and she likes the team with her all the time in the box.

“Plus, I rather not have a camera coming over me.”

Still, it has been a joyride for a mom who moved her three daughters to Florida when Madison was 10 years old so she could receive world-class instruction at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy and compete on a national level.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you are,” Christine said. “If you really work your tail off, you can do what you want and be what you want.

“She’s been committed to this since she was 10.”

There have been turbulent moments along the way. Keys has overcome two wrist surgeries in the past year.

Doubt entered her mind earlier this season if she could ever live up to the lofty expectations attached to her since a young age.

“There were definitely a lot of dark moments,” Keys said in a news conference after the quarterfinal win this week. “There was a moment where I came off the court and I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to win a tennis match again.’”

But after she recovered from the second wrist surgery, Christine noticed a renewed attitude.

“It was like, ‘OK, let’s do this,’” she said.

Keys won her first professional tournament on American soil earlier this summer at the Bank of the West Classic in California.

The world’s 16th-ranked player has carried that momentum into the U.S. Open. Keys upset fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the fourth round, followed by straight set victories over Kaia Kanepi and Vandeweghe.

“She’s healthy, she’s confident and 22½ instead of 18,” Christine said. “It is an experience, something you can’t fake. You have to go through it.

“Every single year, there has been a very big improvement in her tennis, but this year, the biggest improvement is in her mentality of growing and maturing into this spot."

Christine admitted she was “oddly calm” during Thursday’s semifinal win, a match that took less than an hour to complete.

Given her daughter is on the cusp of tennis lore, the tension will be every high Saturday afternoon inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Christine doesn't expect the moment to be too big for Madison. 

“I hope she comes in with the same intensity and same focus,” Christine said. “The last three or four matches, she’s put her head down and gone to work.

"I hope she does the same thing tomorrow.”

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Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.