Advantage Keys: Spreading the Kindness Message
Tennis star Madison Keys is using her position for a greater good: to spread a message of kindness and banish social media trolls forever
By Sandra Harwitt
Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway
Madison Keys is one professional tennis star who doesn’t shy away from being an influencer. The 27-year-old, a former top 10 ranked player currently sitting at number 29 in the WTA Tour rankings, is dedicated to spreading the message of kindness every chance she gets. In fact, she’s so committed to the cause she founded Kindness Wins in February 2020, a non-profit initiative with a “special emphasis on kindness to self, kindness to youth and kindness to others in times of struggle. Kindness Wins serves as a collaborative engine of kindness, spreading kindness to the masses”. A few weeks ago in a phone call from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was about to play her first tournament since reaching the 2022 Australian Open semi finals, Madison comfortably went into Kindness Wins promotional mode, discussing what the foundation is all about and why the cause is so important to her personally.
“It’s about different people from different walks of life all coming together because at the end of the day we want to try and build a kinder world,” Madison says. “We think the first steps are rewarding and noticing both the small and big things people do every single day. When you see someone being kind to someone else, or doing an act of kindness or service, it inspires you to do the same.” Madi, as her besties tend to call her, acknowledges her passion for kindness stems from two of the most important influencers in her life – her grandmother, Bertha, and her mother, Christine. “When I grew up my grandma always used to say, ‘Treat people like you want to be treated’ and that always stuck with me,” Madison says. “And my mom always would say, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’
“So I always grew up with those ideas in the back of my head and that’s just kind of been my upbringing. I would say the best thing that has come from tennis is that it has given me a platform where people really want to hear what I’m saying. So a couple of years ago I felt an obligation to do something with the platform I created and started Kindness Wins.”
Without a doubt, Madison’s personal experience with cyberbullying heightened her belief that the world needed a constant reminder to propagate ‘positive vibes only’. Along with many other players, Madison has expressed her belief that the social media assaults, as well as taunts from the attending crowd, often come directly from disgruntled betting fans who’ve lost wagers on their matches.
At the 2017 French Open I wrote about the cruelty lashed out at Keys on social media for USA Today where she noted she’d been called anything – and everything – from a ‘loser’ to a ‘cancer of tennis’. By this time, Madison was starting to believe that the standard advice to just brush off any uncalled-for abuse was not the appropriate response. “In a big way it’s just standing up for yourself, and I think that’s a big thing,” she said, at the event. “It seemed like it was a topic that no one was supposed to talk about, you’re just supposed to ignore it and not engage with it, but it’s still in front of you and you’re still dealing with it. I think talking about it helps you and may go some way to making it stop. Can’t we just be nice to each other?”
Lindsay Davenport, a three-time Grand Slam champion, coached Madison from 2015 to 2018, a period which saw the Illinois native reach her sole major final at the 2017 US Open. In a recent phone press conference call as one of Tennis Channel’s leading commentators ahead of the 2022 BNP Paribas Open, Davenport recalled the 2015 Indian Wells tournament where she first encountered the cyber abuse players faced after Keys lost a tight three-set match to Jelena Jankovic.
“After the match, she was just showing me her phone and all these hate messages that she was getting on social media,” Lindsay says. “I could not believe it. Just for losing a tennis match, people were talking about her game and about her failing – and even discussing her physical appearance. It was shocking to me, as someone who played in an era when we didn’t have to deal with that. “It affected her so much, and finally she just decided to do something about it,” Davenport adds. “She’s kind of been on a mission ever since. She puts a lot of effort into her foundation. It’s tough to do that while you’re playing. But I think it really brings her a lot of joy and peace to know she’s really trying to make a big difference.”
Initially, Madison was involved with the FearlesslyGirl charity with a similar cause directed at adolescent girls, but when the founder of that organisation made a move to Shanghai, she eventually decided to start her own endeavour. Unfortunately, the timing of launching Kindness Wins coincided with the start of the pandemic, which stalled initial projects. But now that the world is making headway in getting back to more of a normal existence, the foundation is back in business. In the coming months, Madison will bestow three ‘Medals of Kindness’ awards to worthy recipients. These will be handed out at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, the Miami Open and the Credit One Charleston Open. During the Indian Wells tournament, Madison presented Larry Salas, a former Coachella Valley mayor and educator, with the Medal of Kindness for all the work he’s done in the local community. Salas was instrumental in organising the BNP Paribas Open Scholarships Awards program for Coachella Valley High School students.
At the Miami Open, Madison presented Tournament Director James Blake with the Medal of Kindness for his support of cancer research since 2008, his outspoken encouragement for equality and commitment to tennis. “It’s really about acknowledging the great work people are doing when they’re asking for nothing in return,” says Madison, of the concept behind the Medals of Kindness. Last year, with the tour back in semi-action, albeit within Covid bubble conditions, Madison presided over a private Medal of Kindness award ceremony to honour Credit One Charleston Open tournament director Bob Moran and tournament manager Eleanor Adams. “They might just think they’re running their tournament to the standard they want to run it at, but for the players it means so much more because it’s such a welcoming place and somewhere we want to go back to. You feel really comfortable there,” says Madison, of the Charleston-based women’s clay court event. Eleanor acknowledged that receiving the award from Madison was a welcomed surprise. “It was a total shock and it was quite moving and I was so honoured,” she says. “When Madison first started Kindness Wins she asked us for her support and asked if we’d put on events at the tennis centre but of course, Covid sidelined our plans.
“This year, we’ve been asked to help identify someone within the (Charleston) community for Madison to honour and that will be special,” Eleanor adds. “We presented some thoughts and some candidates.” Kindness Wins also has a scheduled event in Colorado in April that Madison says is simply designed to “give all of our recent Olympic athletes a big round of applause and to say well done”. Undoubtedly, Madison’s fellow Kindness Wins partners – Olympic skiing great Mikaela Shiffrin and Paralympic Nordic and Paralympic Cycling star Oksana Masters – will have a starring role in the Colorado festivities.
“When we started Kindness Wins I was very adamant that I wanted other athletes to be a part of it,” Madison says. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through to start your own foundation, so I wanted to create a place where athletes could go without that, and just be a part of something they were drawn to. I didn’t know Mikaela and Oksana beforehand but someone at the Foundation recommended them, and they were aware that they were both looking for something like this.” One of the lessons behind Kindness Wins is learning to be kind to yourself, which Madison is working on achieving daily when it comes to her tennis.
The bi-racial Keys, one of four children of her now-divorced attorney parents Rick and Christine, was first introduced to tennis when seeing Venus Williams playing a match on TV. Keys, who to this day remains interested in fashion and shopping, immediately wanted a white dress just like the one Venus was wearing. Her parents agreed to the dress as long as she was willing to take the tennis lessons that went along with the outfit. Madison quickly showed promise for the sport, and by age 10 moved with her mother and siblings to South Florida where she could train at the Evert Tennis Academy.
Throughout her career, Madison has been touted as a player with potential Grand Slam champion ability because of her explosive serve and sledgehammer forehand. Unfortunately, her results have a tendency to fluctuate between great and not-so-great. This year began on a high note with her winning the Adelaide title and reaching the Australian Open semis, but then took a downturn when she lost her opening round matches at her next two tournaments in Mexico. Fortunately, she was back to winning matches at the BNP Paribas Open.
“It’s hard for her to keep that momentum, and for those of us (watching), we’ve kind of always wondered why that is,” Lindsay says. “Consistency has always been a factor. I wish I knew what the answer was, to try and get her to play at that (high) level more often.” Nevertheless, the way Madison regarded her recent run to the Australian Open semi finals is proof that she’s trying to take the ‘kindness to self’ message to heart. “I think, obviously, once you get in that position of being in a semi final and you don’t win, you’re disappointed,” Madison says. “But at the same time I’m really trying to focus on taking more of the positives each week. I think sometimes I focus a bit too much on what went wrong or what I didn’t quite do well enough.” Like many of her fellow players, Madison also had to learn about patience when the pandemic forced them into adapting to a version of real life where you stay in one place for an extended period of time.
A self-acclaimed foodie, Madison exchanged her passion for seeking out the best restaurants in every city where she played to preparing gourmet meals at home. “I really don’t discriminate as I’ll eat pretty much anything,” she says, enthusiastically. “I love to cook. We’ve been doing so much of it and I’ve been trying to make more Thai food. Most of the time we finish practising late and by the time we get home we focus on something quick. But at the same time we want really tasty meals. We’ve been making steaks. The other day we made sous vide steak, mashed potatoes and a nice little salad.” As for the “we” she refers to when talking about cooking at home, she didn’t identify who her favourite sous chef is, but the most likely candidate would be her longtime boyfriend, fellow American player Bjorn Fratangelo.
Another activity that Madison has found a passion for recently is interior design. “The last couple of years, I’ve been trying to figure out if this is something I would want to pursue when I am done with tennis,” she says. “I managed to build my house from the ground up and that really sparked it for me. And then I decorated it, added my furniture and chose accent walls, and decided where to put my possessions. “I am notoriously known for moving furniture around whenever I get bored,” she adds. “My house never really looks the same. Basically, any time you come, a different couch will be in a different spot with different rugs.”
For now, however, Madison’s attention is primarily on playing tennis with the tour back to a normal tournament schedule. And, of course, she remains completely faithful to delivering her favourite missive that Kindness Wins, always.