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Friday, March 23, 2012
Madison Keys learns as she goes

By Joanne C. Gerstner

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- In many ways, Madison Keys, 17, acts like a normal teen in high school.

She enjoys Taylor Swift and the "Twilight" series, likes to bake, annoyed her mom when she sent 3,000 texts in one month and really, really wants to get her first car. She already has her dream wheels scoped out -- a white BMW 528i.

But instead of hanging with her buddies in school, Keys is getting another form of education -- in the pro tennis world. She's ranked No. 275, but should shoot up into the lower 200s, based on her performance over the past few days at the Sony Ericsson Open.

Keys, an Illinois native who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., reached the main draw in Miami by winning two qualifying matches. She next won her first round match, over 92nd-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1.

But things became much tougher Friday, as she faced fourth-ranked Angieska Radwasnka at Crandon Park Tennis Center.

Radwanska doled out a lot of punishment, beating Keys, 6-1, 6-1, in an hour. Keys' serve, one of her strengths, came back faster than it was struck at times. If Keys came to net, trying to press Radwanska, a blazing shot would fly past her. And if Keys tried to grind out a baseline rally, Radwanska would manipulate her from side to side until her groundstrokes cracked.

"I came out with my plan A, to hit really heavy, and that went out the window by like 2-0, it was like, 'Oh well, that's not going to work,'" Keys, laughing, said after the match. "And then plan B went out the window too. That was like a totally bad match, but it happens. I've got to get through it and get better. I've done really well this week; I won three of my four matches, so that's a really big thing."

Keys never got a break point opportunity against Radwanska and committed 43 unforced errors.

That sounds like a tough day at the office, but this is the process Keys needs to go through in her quest to become one of the world's best. This was the second time Keys has reached the second round of a big tournament in the past year, the first coming in the 2011 U.S. Open. And every match is a new experience, something to be dissected, understood and then, hopefully, improved upon.

Despite the score, Keys looked like she was enjoying herself, frequently smiling. The grandstand crowd was behind her, trying to encourage her.

"I had like two choices: throw my racket or laugh at myself," Keys said. "So I was laughing. I think that was the better choice."

Keys' heavy duty internship comes with the added bonus of the public getting to watch one of the rising young stars of American tennis. She has a long way to go to avoid being stuck in lower-tier tournaments and having to qualify for the big ones. Keys shows a decent foundation to build her career: She's 5-foot-10, has big groundstrokes, seems comfortable at the net and moves well.

And this is what Keys wants to do with her life, a passion she says that started at age 4 when she saw Venus Williams on TV -- in a white tennis dress. Keys wanted the dress, so her mom, Christine, told her she had to play the sport that went with the dress.

Keys hit the court and her talent blossomed. She moved to Florida when she was 9 to train at the Evert Academy. She is also working at the U.S. Tennis Association's Development Center, with Melanie Oudin and Sloane Stephens.

Keys turned pro at 14, and played a mix of WTA and junior tournaments through last season. This year, she's going with an all-pro schedule, hoping to participate in the 17 tournaments. She's also going to school online, balancing her studies, travel, and training.

But she's still taking the time to enjoy being a teen. She's the second of four sisters and lives at home with her parents, Montana, 13, and Hunter, 10. Keys credits her younger sisters for keeping her in check with their lovingly sarcastic remarks.

They love watching cooking shows, with the Food Network's "Chopped" at the top of the list, and experimenting with new recipes scoured from the Internet. Keys counts her successful baking of a chocolate chip cookie dough cheesecake last Thanksgiving as her biggest culinary achievement.

Her younger sisters recently staged their own home version of "Chopped," hitting the pantry for Cheez-Its and Cheerios for ingredients. Keys and her mom served as judges. The results were mixed, but the laughs were plentiful.

Keys' life is busy, as she is preparing for the clay court season and going to Europe. She hopes her tennis career will someday yield her dream BMW.

But for now, she has to settle for borrowing the family wheels and working her way up the tennis food chain.

"This is just tennis, it's not life or death, but it's a pretty awesome job to have, I think," Keys said. "It's definitely awesome."