Holding Court

Fighting through pain made me stronger

In the lead-up to the Oct 22-29 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, each of the eight singles players from last year will pen an exclusive column for The Straits Times. The sixth instalment features this year's US Open finalist Madison Keys.

This time last year I had two things on my mind: managing the searing pain in my left wrist and chasing points to qualify for my first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.

I was 21 years old, ranked No. 9, playing my most consistent season then, in the hunt for Singapore, and I have to be honest, I don't know how I was doing it.

I had been playing through pain for 12 months, and even though I had a fantastic summer hard-court season, I had decided before the US Open that I would skip the Asian swing, shut down my season, and undergo the surgery I had put off for far too long.

So much of last year for me was amazing, but I was in so much pain. If I caught my backhand wrong, it felt like a bolt of lightning had been shot up my left arm. I would finish matches and be tears. It was time to get it fixed.

Then I made the round of 16 at the US Open and found myself in contention for Singapore. There was no way anyone was going to get me off of a tennis court. I was going to do everything I could to get to Singapore. After a pressure-filled push through Asia, I did it.

I qualified, beat eventual winner Dominika Cibulkova in the group stage, and two days after landing in Florida I went under the knife.

Playing through all that pain and pressure certainly made me tougher and I needed that toughness, even more, this year.

Madison Keys hitting a backhand en route to defeating fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe at the US Open to make her first Major final.
Madison Keys hitting a backhand en route to defeating fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe at the US Open to make her first Major final. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Being away from the game helped me remember why I love competing. It helped me tremendously... it just made me realise how much I love it and to not put so much pressure on myself.

Because I delayed my surgery until November, I was forced to skip the first two months of the season, and things weren't so rosy when I returned. The pain in my wrist quickly returned and before I knew it I was having a second surgery after the French Open.

As an elite athlete struggling to win, it can take a huge toll on you mentally. There were moments the ball came off my racket with such purity that I thought "Hey, it's still there! I'm back!"

Then when you struggle to win matches, you start to openly wonder if you'll ever win one again.

But my time away from the Tour allowed me to take a lot of pressure off myself. Last year, my only focus was to get to Singapore. I quickly lost sight of how much I actually loved the game.

I wasn't playing, I was just chasing points. That's all I could focus on. What I did so well last year - at least until I realised I was in contention for Singapore - was that I stopped thinking about results.

I was so good at staying in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, and problem-solving. When everything became results-oriented, the passion started to fade.

Being away from the game helped me remember why I love competing. It helped me tremendously, and I think, not being there, it just made me realise how much I love it and to not put so much pressure on myself, which I think helps me enjoy being out on the court a lot more.

Obviously, that relaxed attitude paid dividends this summer. Just two tournaments after undergoing my second wrist surgery, I won my third career title at the Stanford Classic in California. A few weeks later I was in my first Grand Slam final at the US Open.

I didn't play my best tennis that day against my good friend Sloane Stephens. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I couldn't have been happier for Sloane, who has gone through her own injury.

But if you told me as I was getting on a plane for my second surgery that I could have a Grand Slam finalist trophy in my hands at the end of the year, I think I'd be really happy. Over the last two years, through the incredible highs and lowest of lows, I've learnt that I'm a fighter.

No matter what, I can figure things out. I've learnt that I'm much stronger than I thought I was and I rediscovered my passion for the Tour life. I love being a professional tennis player. I love being on the road. I love that match point feeling.

Having all of the things that were thrown at me this year, to have won a title and made my first Major final feels so good and makes me really proud of myself. I may not qualify for Singapore this year, but the lessons I learnt from qualifying last year leave me confident I'll be there again soon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Fighting through pain made me stronger'. Print Edition | Subscribe