In the world of elite sports, where competition is literally what brings players together, it always amazes me to see that the community around these athletes is just as strong. And in a sport like tennis that you can play your whole life, the new generation of athletes has the unique opportunity to build community with the veterans they grew up watching on TV. At least, that’s the case for tennis player Madison Keys, who famously started playing after asking her parents for a dress like the one Venus Williams once wore to Wimbledon. (Williams trounced Keys the first time they played, in 2013; Keys just beat Williams in the quarterfinals at the Cincinnati Masters, going on to win the tournament.)
“It's really cool to have played against people that I used to watch,” Keys, 24, tells Bustle. (Just moments before, Keys broke away from our conversation to hug Lindsay Davenport, her coach until 2016, as she walked by.) “Being able to go from watching them on TV, wanting to be them when I grew up ... to now getting advice or playing against them, is kind of surreal.”
Bustle caught up with Keys at Nike’s Queens of the Future event in New York City, where Nike brought 40 young tennis players from around the city to play with 11 tennis greats, including Keys, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep, and Maria Sharapova. Naomi Osaka, currently ranked number one in the world, also joined the event, where the young athletes played Queen of the Court and other exercises, and everyone was treated to a surprise appearance by Serena Williams.
Keys, who’s currently ranked number 10 in the world, says the best advice she’s ever gotten about tennis was from Davenport, whom Keys considers a mentor. (Davenport played the role of announcer at the Nike event, along with Tennis Channel sportscaster Brett Haber.) “Her biggest thing was to enjoy the ride because if you are stressed the entire time and not enjoying it, then you look back and think, man, I should have enjoyed that.” Later, when Davenport asks Keys in front of the crowd what advice she’d have for her 12-year-old self, Keys admits she “took myself a little bit too seriously.” (In fairness, if I went pro at 14 as Keys did, I’d probably take myself seriously, too.) “I expected a lot from myself and that took away some of the fun. As I've gotten older, I've realized the more fun I'm having on the court, the better I play.”
"It's always nice when you come into the locker room and you can just talk and it feels really normal."
Keys says she’s lucky to be surrounded by friends that help her tap into that sense of fun. She attended the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida from the ages of 10 to 16, where she says she met a lot of people who are still her friends today. Sloane Stephens, currently ranked number 11, is one of her rocks while she’s playing the tournament circuit. “It's always been really great to have Sloane. It's always nice when you come into the locker room — we usually get lockers right by each other — and you can just talk and it feels really normal. To have that kind of friendship when you're on the road all of the time away from your family kind of helps you not go crazy.”
And that’s where the power of community in this sport really makes itself known. Whether you’re moved by Keys embracing Stephens after Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open, or by a cluster of young athletes playing Queen of the Court against some of the top-ranked players in the world, it’s the images of togetherness, of the hugs and high fives, that stick with you long after the details of the match are lost to the recesses of YouTube. And it's those images that show even lay tennis players like me that yes, any of us can join this amazing sport for our whole lives.