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For Madison Keys, good vibes make the tennis thrive in Australia

After a dismal 2021 season that felt like “having a weight on her chest” Madison Keys has emerged from a dark period with a smile on her face – and a Grand Slam semi-final to her name.

Madison Keys 2022 Australian Open Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – January 23, 2022 Madison Keys of the U.S. during an interview after she won her fourth round match against Spain’s Paula Badosa || 218680_0496

Australian Open 2022 | Draw Order of play 

It’s a catchphrase that we’ve heard uttered regularly over the last 52 weeks, from many top players: Just have fun. It has not been easy of late as the coronavirus pandemic has forced players into bubbles for weeks at a time, and kept them edgy, nervous about everything from mental health issues to getting sick from Covid to playing in empty stadiums.

But gradually, many players have taken the power back.

Anett Kontaveit said that relaxing and not taking tennis too seriously was a big reason that she completed a remarkable surge that took her into the top 10 last last year. Naomi Osaka has echoed the same sentiments in Australia, saying: “I feel like the goal for me is just to have fun, and I’m grateful for my team because I think that we’re accomplishing that.”

Madison Keys, the first woman to reach the semi-finals at the 2022 Australian Open, is the latest player to look deep within herself and rediscover the simple joy of playing the sport on her terms. After a difficult 2021 that started when she missed the Australian Open due to Covid, the American said that things snowballed and her mental health suffered.

Keys – bubbles got to me, and it spiralled from there

Keys, who defeated Barbora Krejcikova 6-3, 6-2 on Tuesday to reach her fifth Grand Slam semi-final, has now amassed 11 victories in January – the same amount she notched in the whole of 2021. In Australia she has talked about how difficult the last few years have been for her personally, and how she has been able to overcome these tribulations.

“I think last year was just difficult,” she said. “It started off with not being able to come to Australia. I felt like I was behind because everyone else had done so well. I kind of just started comparing myself to everyone who was doing well and feeling that kind of panic of I have to catch up, I have to catch up.”

Keys said that travelling the tour under strict Covid protocols really made her life miserable for a time.

“Being in bubbles was really difficult for me personally,” she said on Saturday after defeating Paula Badosa to reach the quarter-finals in Melbourne for the first time since 2015. “I don’t really thrive when my entire life becomes about tennis. 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.”

Keys says that things gradually improved in the second half of 2021.

“The latter half of the year, not being in bubbles, helped a little bit. Then having the off-season to reset, take some time. 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,” she said.

But her situation didn’t fully improve until she received what she refers to as a “stern talking to” from her boyfriend, fellow professional tennis player Bjorn Fratangelo. Keys says she was losing sleep over her status on tour, and her worries had become obsessive by then.

Madison Keys after winning 2022 Adelaide 2 (SIPA)

“I felt like there was literally a weight on my chest”

“I was just at a very high anxiety level all of the time,” she said. “I wasn’t sleeping as well. It just, like I said, 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.

“I just became a much higher anxiety person than I already kind of am. It was probably not the easiest to live with me at that time period. I’m very appreciative of the sit-down, stern talking-to that I received.”

This January the American has emerged from her fog sporting an ear-to-ear grin, and her elevated mood has bled into her tennis, where she is playing unencumbered and hitting out with verve. Keys already has amassed ten victories in January, a number that is just one shy of her total for all of 2022.

No matter what happens in her quarter-final with Barbora Krejcikova, it’s clear that Keys has learned a valuable lesson about what makes her tick, both as a human being and a top tennis player.

Tennis is a complex sport that can leave an athlete frazzled and frozen as he or she contemplates the proper next step. The options are limitless, but sometimes the choice is simple: a little smile goes a long way.

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