Despite her growing success, Madison Keys hasn't forgotten where she came from.

The 41st-ranked women's tennis player in the world returned to her hometown of Rock Island Friday to unveil three new tennis courts at Hodge Park as part of the Fresh Courts program.

"It's such an honor to be able to come back and help just even a little bit and help the sport," said the 18-year-old Keys, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla.

The program began in 2010 when American Express partnered with the U.S. Tennis Association to develop new generations of tennis fans and players by renovating tennis facilities around the country.

In years past, the Fresh Courts program had selected projects based on grant applications. They had previously renovated more than 80 courts in high-profile locations such as Los Angeles and New York. This year, those in charge decided to try something new.

"For the first time, American Express asked one of the brightest stars in tennis to kind of tell us where we should go," American Express Corporate Affairs and Communications manager Ashley Tufts said. "What community really needs our help? And Madison asked us to come here to Rock Island."

The fact that Keys chose Rock Island was not necessarily cut and dried. Sloane Stephens, a Plantation, Fla., native and another rising tennis star, had the Fresh Courts program refurbish courts in Maryland.

"We're always proud when the sons and daughters of Rock Island go out in the world, work hard and accomplish things," said Rock Island Mayor Dennis Pauley, "but even more so when they return to the community and give young people opportunities to pursue their passions."

Keys began pursuing her passion of tennis at the age 4. Because her parents didn't feel a tennis club membership was necessary for a 4-year-old, Keys learned the game on the free community tennis courts in the area, such as Hodge Park.

"I had always been playing around in the Quad-Cities," Keys said. "And I kind of always played a little bit of everywhere, so I just found a place (in Hodge Park) where I thought it was the center of everything."

In the 14 years since first picking up a racket, Keys' career blossomed. She beat the reigning Wimbledon champion Serena Williams at age 14 and is scheduled to play in the U.S. Open in  a week-and-a-half.

Despite the upcoming major tournament, Keys took time off from practice because she said opportunities like this are good for tennis.

"You really need to enjoy yourself," she said. "I think sometimes you over think things and get a little bit too nervous and just going out and remembering it's that you love, and just playing it, is the most important thing. For me it's so amazing that I can remember that it's a sport and that I can use what I've been doing to help other people."

The courts at Hodge Park were in need of some upgrades, and have undergone significant changes thanks to the Fresh Courts program.

"There were four doubles courts, one singles court, but they were all very close together and they had definitely seen their time." Rock Island Director of Parks and Recreation Bill Nelson said. "We had put some money together to resurface the courts, but also saw that we had some other problems."

Thanks to Keys and the Fresh Courts program, the renovations took care of themselves. The fences were rebuilt and the old courts were completely replaced from the ground up with three 78-feet USTA-sanctioned tennis courts, painted in the blue and white that the courts of the U.S. Open feature. One of the courts also can be used as a "short-court," featuring 36-feet and 60-feet blended lines designed specifically for youth players.

"The short-court is intended to help younger players begin the game where it's a little easier, a little slower, to help get that ball back over," Nelson said. "Then they can move on to where they get more control and move on to the larger courts."

Because the renovations were funded by the USTA and American Express, the city now has unexpected funds that they can now use to renovate some of the other parks in Rock Island.

"By the USTA paying for this, it allows us to do some other parks," Pauley said. "We'll do Lincoln Park next and whatever else we can do with it, so it means a huge amount to us."

USTA and American Express also honored local community member Rosann Welser during the ceremony with the Fresh Courts Community Tennis Award.

Welser has been a Bi-State Community Tennis Association board member for over 20 years, and has been involved in getting the community and the youth involved in the sport through many different programs.

"I was notified a week-and-a-half ago and I've been unbelievably overwhelmed ever since then, feeling strangely special, having a hard time dealing with it. When I walked in today, I went out and said 'I should be working, not sitting here.'"

Welser received a trophy for her efforts as well as tickets to the U.S. Open. Welser watched Keys grow up playing tennis at the Quad-City Tennis Club, and now gets to watch her up close and personal on one of the largest stages in the world.

"I watch her all the time," Welser said. "I know where she is all the time because of tennistv.com. Now I'm going to New York, and I will be right by her side."

Keys finished the afternoon by participating in a youth clinic with more than 80 local kids, hitting volleys back and forth with young tennis players, and then autographing tennis balls for them.

"We have feet on the court, and rackets out," Tufts said, "and that's what it's all about is getting a racket in the hands of future players and fans."

Keys will leave soon for New York, and she's ready to make Rock Island, and the Quad-Cities, a household name.

"Not many people know where I'm from when I drop the name, but hopefully after awhile people will start knowing where I'm from," Keys said. "I always try to say that I'm from the Quad-Cities."

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times

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