DANIEL ISLAND, S.C. — On the way to becoming one of the top young Americans in women’s tennis, Madison Keys has had her share of sweet and not-so-sweet moments this season. And sometimes a little of both.
There was a first quarterfinal appearance in a WTA tournament, a third-round visit in the Australian Open and a major bump in the rankings this year. That was the sweet.
The not-so-sweet? Well, that turned out to be sweet, too. After a second-round loss to Lauren Davis at the Sony Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., recently, in a match Keys knew she could have won, Keys took out her frustration with Starburst, Twizzlers, cheesecake, chips and soda.
Did we mention Keys is 18 years old?
“I don’t think my coach was very happy with how much I ate,” Keys said, laughing. “He knew it was a tough one. I do that maybe once every six months. So I definitely will not be doing that anytime soon.”
If the Davis match was a step back for Keys, it is one of the few she has taken this year in what so far has been a breakthrough season. In January, Keys beat Lucie Safarova, then No. 17, on the way to reaching the quarterfinals of a WTA event in Sydney, Australia. Keys, 17 at the time, followed that by advancing to the third round of the Australian Open in only her third major tournament.
Her ranking has jumped to 77th, from 149th, going into this week’s Family Circle Cup near Charleston, S.C.
“Obviously, she proved in Australia she could play with anyone,” said Patrick McEnroe, general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association.
Keys joins Davis, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend and a handful of other highly regarded young players who will most likely replace Serena and Venus Williams as the top Americans in women’s tennis when they retire.
Could Keys — 5 feet 10 inches with a powerful serve that her U.S.T.A. coach, Juan Todero, ranks nearly as strong as Serena Williams’s — emerge as the best of them?
“She’s big and strong; she’s a very good athlete and also just learning to corral her game a little bit,” McEnroe said. “She has a lot of weapons. She’s got a huge serve, and she really hits the ball pretty big. So really it’s kind of a threefold process with her. Obviously physically, getting her stronger, getting quicker — a lot of that comes with just maturity.
“From the technical standpoint — playing more percentage tennis, because she does have the ability to hit the ball incredibly hard. And the last piece of it would be the mental adjustment coming from being a top junior to handling the rigors of playing week in and week out on the tour.”
The only question is how soon she will put that all together. Keys turned 18 in February, so this will be her first full season on the tour. The next few months, with the clay-court and grass seasons upon her, will be daunting. Although Keys has spent years playing on clay in Boca Raton, Fla., she has little match experience on the surface. She has a total of three pro matches on grass.
“I anticipate clay could be a bit more of a challenge for Madison,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, the broadcaster and Fed Cup captain. “She’s done well on the hardcourts, now transferring that to a different surface. It will take maybe a little bit of time, but I’m looking forward to it because I think that’s where you do actually get most of your improvement is on a slower surface.
“Grass, I think she could be a big threat because of her big serve and her first-strike ability.”
Neither the busier schedule nor the growing expectations seem to fluster Keys. She received a text message from Chris Evert after the loss to Davis, urging her to learn from the experience and move on as she prepares for the tournaments ahead.
“I think when you’re younger and you’re watching people play on TV, you always say that you want to be at the French Open — you want to be playing Grand Slams,” Keys said Saturday after a practice session at the Family Circle Cup. “But then actually being there doing it, it kind of blows you away thinking, Wow, I actually used to think maybe I could do that one day, and now I’m actually doing it.
“I’m just excited, looking forward to traveling, getting to go to all these places. I’m not really focused on results. I try not to be. I think when I start thinking about results, I stop playing the right way because I start getting too nervous. So I’m just really trying to stick to the game plan that I go out there with, staying calm, and really just when I come off the court being happy with how I played, win or lose.”
In January, Keys gave Li Na, then No. 6, plenty of trouble before falling in three sets in the quarterfinals at Sydney. Several of her losses this year have come against top-ranked players, including Angelique Kerber in the third round of the Australian Open and Sam Stosur in the second round at Indian Wells last month.
Unlike Stephens, who had her signature win in the Australian Open when she beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, Keys has yet to pull off a head-turning upset. But it may be coming.
“I think she can break through at any moment,” Todero said. “Most tennis players, they do these little jumps — they jump and they get there, and they jump again. And I think any moment she’s going to be close to making a big jump.”