Keys, seeded 17th in the Australian Open, will face 44th-ranked Wang Qiang of China in the first round.
High hopes are not new to Keys’s career, which quickly accelerated from a fashion choice to a career choice.
Spotting the 1999 Wimbledon tournament on a television in her parents’ bedroom, a 4-year-old Madison decided she wanted the dress Venus Williams was wearing.
“It was a cutout dress, very racy, and it showed her back,” her mother, Christine Keys, recalled. “She was just walking through and she goes, ‘Oh, can I get one of those dresses?’ I said, ‘Well, you have to play that sport.’ She said, ‘Oh, O.K.! Let’s do that!’ Two weeks later, she goes: ‘Hey, when am I going to get that dress? And the stick?’”
Her chance introduction to the sport revealed thunderous talent. After moving from Rock Island to Florida to train at the Evert Tennis Academy, Keys quickly attracted hype.
“At 12 they said she was going to win a Slam by the time she was 18,” Christine Keys said. “How unfair is that?”
Instead, her career has progressed steadily. Keys turned professional on her 14th birthday and broke into the top 100 just before her 17th. She first cracked the top 10 in the summer of 2016 at age 20, becoming the first American woman to make her top 10 debut since Serena Williams in 1999.
While Keys lacked a traditional high school experience, she said her adolescence was hardly short of the tension many girls experience, with the added factors of competing for titles and sponsors.
“It was constant, being compared to other girls,” she said. “It still does happen; we still have a number next to our name. You kind of have to dissociate from that. From a very young age, you had to not care what other people were saying.”
Keys pointed to her relationship with Stephens, her opponent in the U.S. Open final, as one that could have become particularly strained under the pressure.
“Sloane and I, since we were 12 and 14, have constantly been compared to each other,” Keys said. “Sloane would do something amazing, and I wouldn’t, and it would be like, ‘Oh, well, you know, Sloane is just better.’ Then it would flip, and go back and forth. It was amazing, because people were obsessed with comparing us to each other and trying to pit us against each other, and we were supposed to still have a normal friendship. That’s something that takes work, and takes acknowledgment.”
Keys continued: “We’ve definitely had to balance it out, and not focus on being jealous, and not make our ambition turn into jealousy. We’ve both done a really good job at continuing to stay friends no matter who is doing what, who is ranked where, or anything else.”