Madison Keys

2009: Madison Keys could become one of tennis' rising stars. (Contributed photo)

Contributed photo

Madison Keys was fearless at 4.

"She was a monkey-bar fiend," recalled her mother, Christine. "She would be on top of them. She would be one-handed. She would swing.

"She started riding a bike when she was 4, and there was no issue when we took off the training wheels. She was always just much more mature and she never not did anything because she was scared."

A mere 10 years later, the former Milan girl's fearlessness is her foremost strength as she begins her climb in a professional tennis-playing career her highly experienced coach is convinced eventually could include Grand Slam titles.

"Most of the good young players I have managed, worked with or been associated with were fearless," said John Evert, who decades ago watched his sister, Chris, rise to the top of the game and whose past pupils include Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and Mary Jo Fernandez. "They really could walk onto a big stage or up against some of the top players and feel like they could compete with them, if not beat them.

"I think Madison has that X Factor, that intangible, from a mental standpoint."

That's not a guess by the founder and director of The Evert Tennis Academy. It is a proven fact.

Keys - 14 and now living in Boca Raton, Fla., with parents who also maintain a Rock Island law practice - beat the world's 81st-ranked player in her Sony-Ericcson Women's Tennis Association debut in April.

Evert insists it was no fluke that Keys became the seventh youngest player to win a main draw WTA match when she topped Russian Alla Kudryavtseva at the MPS Group Championships on April 6.

Asked to compare Keys to other young players, Evert picked the girl he considered to be the best 14-year-old player in women's tennis history.

"I can compare her strength-wise to Jennifer," he said, pointing to former charge Capriati. "Jennifer in my opinion was the best at age 14. Better than (Monica) Seles, (Martina) Hingis. She had four wins over top-10 players in her first couple months on a top-level tour. She was able to do that because of her strength and her mental strength.

"But their game styles are a little bit different. Madison actually has a bigger serve and a bigger forehand than Jennifer."

Slow pro progress

Ironically, the post-adolescent issues experienced by Capriati are reasons Keys won't have a chance to replicate Capriati's teen-aged success.

She will be limited to just eight pro starts this year, and her appearance at the MPS event in Ponte Vedra, Fla., is the only WTA tour appearance she will be allowed as a 14-year-old.

Rules changes enacted after Capriati's career briefly imploded with a drug arrest at age 18 will limit Keys' pro appearances on a graduated scale through the age of 17.

While conceding those restrictions probably are healthy, Evert said Keys' "transition is going to be slower, as is any young protege in today's game."

In the interim, Keys will play lower-level pro tour events and continue to play in international junior events. In fact, she had qualified this year to play the junior draw at last week's French Open and at Wimbledon next month.

She has withdrawn from both, however, because of growing pains in her hips, but has been cleared by doctors to practice and plans to play next month for the Philadelphia Freedoms, the franchise that drafted her for professional World Team Tennis competitions that will run through July.

While disappointed at missing out on the chance to play on the clay at Roland Garros in Paris and on the grass at Wimbledon, young Keys said the opportunity to play WTT matches against accomplished pros is a nice consolation.

That's particularly true given that a Freedoms teammate will be Venus Williams, a player Keys has idolized since age 4.

Enthralled by an outfit Williams wore at Wimbledon, the then-4-year-old Keys told her father she wanted to play tennis. A quick trip to the Milan Walgreens produced a racket, and a tennis career was born.

She still calls herself Venus Williams' biggest fan, but, as for tennis, Keys said, "Now I see there is much more than just the outfits."

A miniature pro

Rick Keys said the decision for his daughter to turn professional wasn't taken lightly or made in haste.

 What it came down to was that Madison was ready, and this was the best route for growing her game, he said.

Madison Keys already was competing one and two age groups up in juniors, and the best players at those levels also already had declared themselves professionals.

"She's just a year or two younger than the best girls in that group transitioning," her father said.

He said Madison years ago set a goal of turning pro by 14, but he said it wouldn't have happened if the Keys and Evert didn't believe she was physically, mentally and emotionally ready.

"I think she proved she's physically capable," the father said, pointing to the win in Ponte Vedra.

Although steps are being taken to protect her mental well-being, Keys said his daughter also recently proved her maturity by agreeing, after a conversation with her mother, that it was best to sit out the French Open and Wimbledon while her body developed this summer.

"She is a miniature pro," he said. "They talked it through and Madison made that decision."

Qualifying for the 54-player junior draw at both Grand Slam events is no small feat, and Madison was seeded 36th at Wimbledon.

She's disappointed to miss out, she said, but added, "I'll always have next year."

The Keys are taking that kind of long view in regards to the youngster's career.

Rick Keys didn't see the epic win in Ponte Vedra, but said, "Christine and I just didn't make a big thing out of the match. We were happy for Madison. Happy that she won. But as far as the big picture, it's one of many.

"We're trying not to make this a huge deal. It's part of the process, and she has a lot of work to do."

And, yes, the father said, Madison is working for a paycheck. She will be paid for every pro appearance and earned more by winning a match.

There also are endorsement earnings that have come via a contract with agent Max Eisenbud of the International Management Group.

"She gets it and it goes in her account," the father said. "She probably couldn't tell you how much she has made.

"The money aspect, we are keeping that completely separate."

On to the future

Madison Keys is where she is because she dared to dream big.

From an early age, she wanted to be a professional tennis player. Now, she is.

So how big does the fearless teen dream now?

She won't bite on that one.

"I just want to be the best I can be," she said. "Whatever I do, if that's the best I can do, I'm happy."

Evert believes the sky is the limit.

Starting with a serve in excess of 100 mph that is powered by a lithe, 5-foot-10 frame, he said, "She's got weapons at a very young age. Most of the top players in the world have weapons, but it takes some time to develop them.

"Madison at the age of 14 can hit her serve or her forehand as big as most of the girls, and some of the top girls, on the pro tour."

Still to be learned, he said, is "how to construct points" and understanding how accomplished players will counter her style as well as how to counter theirs.

"On any given day, I think she can play with some of the top players on the pro tour," the coach insisted. "I don't think there is anybody outside the top 10 where it is a given she can't compete with them."

Certainly, that includes Keys' fellow transitioning contemporaries, many of whom Evert recently observed at the French Open.

"I think she is as good, if not better, than any of them right now," he said. "And she is younger than them, and I think she has more upside because of her weapons and because she is still growing.

"All those girls are going to be very, very good pros. Anywhere from top 10 in the world to top 20."

So what sets Keys apart?

"I think Madison," he said, "has the ability to win Slams."