Rhyne Williams and Madison Keys are packing for the Southern Hemisphere this weekend, where they’ll compete and tune up before the Grand Slam of the Pacific beginning January 14 in Melbourne Park. I was able to ask them a few questions on Thursday before they headed out as part of a USTA conference call with USTA Public Relations Director Tim Curry.
TIM CURRY: Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. Thanks to Madison Keys and
Rhyne Williams for their time. We wanted to give you both an opportunity to tell your story a little bit to the media in advance of your trips to Australia. Madison and Rhyne won the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs last weekend in Atlanta. For Madison, it’s her second win in a row at the Australian Open Playoff. For Rhyne, it will be his first appearance at a Grand Slam other than the US Open where he qualified this year and played Andy Roddick. It is two consecutive slams for him. Rhyne is a former Tennessee Vol and was the NCAA runner-up two years ago as a sophomore. Why don’t we start off a little bit with both players talking about their run at the tournament and the opportunity they have now in Australia. Madison, do you want to talk about playing the tournament the second time and winning it.
MADISON KEYS: Yeah, it was a great opportunity that I was able to play it again. Just really excited to go play Australia again and hopefully do a little bit better than I did last year. Just overall really happy and excited.
TIM CURRY: Rhyne.
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, really thankful to the USTA for the opportunity to play this tournament. It’s a relief to win it and not have to worry about playing the qualifying down there. I know how hard it is to get through the qualifying. I’m really happy and excited to be in the main draw of Australia. It’s going to be my first trip down there. Looking to have fun with it and go out there and do my best.
TIM CURRY: We’ll open it up now for questions for Madison and Rhyne.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) Rhyne, you played more sets in Atlanta last week than any other player, be it male or female. I’m wondering what, if anything, you’re going to do to train for increased match endurance during your time in Melbourne.
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, I’ve been doing that all December to get ready for Australia. We’ve been hitting the fitness extremely hard. The off-court training has been pretty brutal. I’m a little beat up. I’m heading back to Knoxville today for a few days to rest up and get ready to head down there. I’m leaving Sunday. Hopefully I can get the body ready for that. I’m starting in Brisbane. Looking to start off on a good note. But we’ve been training extremely hard
down here. It’s really warm, just like Australia, maybe not quite the same temperature, but this is just about the best place you can train, Boca Raton. We’ve done a great job this off-season.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) We talked about your family’s tennis legacy. What was the reception from your family after your big win in Atlanta?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, they were extremely happy for me. I’m going to see them all this afternoon. I’m sure they’re fired up to have me back. I’m really excited to be home, kick back and relax for a few days.But I got calls from my grandfather and my uncles, texts from everyone just saying congratulations. But it’s just the beginning. I haven’t done anything yet. I just want to follow up on it.
Q. Rhyne, I know that you just mentioned about your off-court fitness training. I was wondering if you could go into a little bit of detail about what you actually do, what you feel like the most maybe three important things that you need to keep doing to keep up your fitness level. What do you actually do in the gym?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, I usually don’t pick up the weights too much, too often. Maybe a couple times a week, but not too heavy. Tennis is mostly a lungs and legs sport. It’s turned into that. We do a lot of stuff on the field, on the soccer field, a ton of endurance runs. We did that for the first three weeks. This past week we’ve done a lot more agility and quickness, running with cones and ladders, footwork drills. The main thing for the first part of the
off-season was legs and lungs. We really worked extremely hard and put in a lot of hours. I just need to keep making good decisions with my eating habits and getting good rest, stuff like that. Those are the main things we’ve focused on.
Q. When you say ‘a lot of hours,’ about how many hours of off-court training do you do in a week?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Per day we were doing an hour and a half of tennis and then two hours in the gym, then two hours in the afternoon on the field incorporating abs, stretching, shoulder, stuff like that. It’s a lot of long days.
Q. Madison, I read that you’re leaving to Australia on the 23rd, in just a few days. Tell me if that is true. How is it to miss Christmas with your family? Does it just come with the territory of being a professional tennis player?Also last year you had a tough first-round match in Australia. Tell me about that experience and how will that experience help you this year going into the Australian Open.
MADISON KEYS: I’m going to New Zealand the 23rd, and we land the 25th. I’m kind of sad that I don’t get to spend Christmas with my family, but we’re going to do a Christmas before I leave. It kind of comes with the territory. I mean, you’re pretty used to being gone on holidays and your birthday, so you’re kind of used to it.
Last year I kind of got my butt kicked by Zheng Jie. Obviously, I wish the outcome was a little bit better. But this year hopefully I can go down and do better.
Q. Madison, you trained for a long time at the Evert Academy. You’re still working at the USTA. Can you talk about that arrangement and talk about the fall. You won a couple of USTA Pro Circuit challengers, had a strong fall. I’m wondering if you feel like some pieces of your game are starting to come together now.
MADISON KEYS: Yeah, I trained at Evert Tennis Academy for like eight years. About a year and a half ago, two years ago, I started training with the USTA, and I’m still there. It’s basically the same center, but it’s just different coaches and different people I hit with.
Q. Talk about your fall. You had strong results on the circuit. Talk about your game, if you feel like those pieces are starting to come together for you and why.
MADISON KEYS: Yeah, I had a really good end of the season. I won a challenger in Canada, got to the semis of another one, then I won a $75K Pro Circuit event in Phoenix. It was a good way to end the season for me. I came off the year feeling really confident, having a good idea of how I wanted to play. So I think my game is kind of coming together a little bit better. I’m kind of understanding it a little bit. So I’m really excited just to go down to New Zealand and Sydney, the warmup tournaments for Australia, just really try to keep the moment going.
Q. When you say you understand your game better, what does that mean exactly?
MADISON KEYS: I feel like when I’m hitting good shots and stuff, I’m kind of moving forward a little bit more, looking for short balls, starting to come to the net a little bit more, knowing how to use my serve on big points. I’m understanding how to play tennis a little bit better.
Q. Rhyne, can you talk a little bit about playing for Tennessee and more importantly the importance of college tennis.
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Playing at Tennessee, those were probably the best two years of my life. Extremely fun to change it up and play for something bigger than yourself for a change. Tennis is a very individual sport. Playing with a group of guys that you love, it’s an incredible experience. I got a whole lot better in college. Our coaches really pushed me. I feel like our team pushed each other. We had a blast. Just an incredible couple years. We got a little unlucky in the championship match. But we really enjoyed every minute of being there. It was sad to leave but I feel like I did it at the right time. My buddy Tennys Sandgren and I both ended up leaving at the same time. We’re living together in Boca. We’re doing the whole traveling thing together. Playing for Tennessee was just absolutely incredible.
Q. So many guys for years skipped college tennis altogether. Now you have many guys playing college tennis. Is college tennis a viable alternative before turning pro?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Absolutely. There are several programs that can get you ready for pro tennis afterwards if that’s your goal. It’s just a great way to kind of get away from the pressure of turning pro at such a young age. I certainly needed it. I wasn’t really enjoying tennis from age 16 to 18. I needed to switch it up a little bit. I went to school and got away from the pressure of pro tennis. It was just a great way to learn, mature, get ready to commit to being a pro.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) Madison, I want to talk more about your Christmas plans. I understand that you’re going to New Zealand with some other reindeer from America this year. I wanted to ask you if you’re going to be hitting with or practicing with them Down Under?
MADISON KEYS: I think there’s a couple of us on the same flight from L.A. to New Zealand. Shelby Rogers, Lauren Davis, Maria Sanchez, Grace Min will all be there at the same time. I’m sure we’ll do something, go to dinner together so we’re not completely alone on Christmas.
Q. There’s your real family and then your New Zealand family?
MADISON KEYS: You have your real family and then your tennis family.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) As far as their chances Down Under, are you optimistic about them qualifying?
MADISON KEYS: Yeah, I’m very excited for all of us going down there. I think we’ve all worked very hard this off-season. I think everyone has put in the work. I think that it’s going to be a good couple weeks for us.
Q. Madison, can you follow up on your goals. You repeated the wild card playoff from last year, which is a pretty high, intense winner-take-all situation. How does that change your expectations going into next season and what are your expectations now that you feel like your game is coming together a bit more? What are you expecting out of yourself this coming year?
MADISON KEYS: Winning the wild card doesn’t really change my goals or expectations for next year. I’m still going to New Zealand to play the qualifying in Auckland. Getting into the main draw of the Open let me play Sydney before the tournament. I kind of want to try to keep what I have going, try to keep it going. You know, I just want to be happy with how I’m playing. So far I am. So if I can just keep this going…I think my biggest goal is maybe by Wimbledon or US Open being able to make main draw by myself, which would be top 100, would be incredible. That’s probably the biggest goal I have for the next year.
Q. What is the biggest difference for you in making that transition from the juniors to the pros?
MADISON KEYS: The first couple years were definitely hard especially because you don’t have a full schedule so you’re kind of bouncing back and forth from juniors to pros. You don’t always play the best. I think being able to play all pro tournaments has really helped me kind of find my game a little bit more. I’ve been working really hard, done lots of fitness. I’m kind of playing more like a pro instead of a junior, playing smarter, being more aggressive, just being in better shape. I think that’s just really helped me out.
Q. Have you stopped growing? How tall are you now?
MADISON KEYS: I’m like 5’10” and a half and I’m done growing.
Q. Did you add or lose body weight in the training this off-season?
MADISON KEYS: I think I pretty much maintained it. I don’t think I really gained or lost any weight.
Q. But you feel fitter, leaner, stronger?
MADISON KEYS: Yeah, for sure.
Q. Rhyne, I would like to ask you who is your main coach, who have you been working with at Boca, and who is your main fitness coach?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: My main coach is my cousin, Christopher Williams. We started in July. Been working with him since. He moved down to Boca Raton. He currently lives with Tom Gullikson and Troy Hahn. They work with the USTA on the girls’ side. He travels with me everywhere I go. We work together every day. My fitness coach is Gabriel Echevarria. He is employed by the USTA. He is from Argentina originally and worked in Barcelona before. I think he’s been down in Boca for close to a year, maybe eight months or so. He’s been kicking my butt this off-season.
Q. Madison has been down there already. This is going to be your first visit to Australia. What do you know about the history of Australian tennis? It’s one of the great tennis nations. For instance, have you heard of Harry Hopman? Do you know who he was?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: I do not, sadly.
Q. Actually, he worked in Florida as a coach and was responsible for Australia winning 12 Davis Cups out of about 15 in the 1950s and 1960s. You’ll learn a lot about the history of Australian tennis. Presumably you’d like to play on Rod Laver Arena if you get the chance?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, in one of the later rounds. If I’m there first round, I would be playing Novak or Roger. That would be a pretty tough draw. It was an ultimate experience playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium this year against Andy Roddick. Yeah, I’ll probably definitely soak that up. It would be incredible to play on Rod Laver. Any court I’m on, it’s going to be incredible. I can’t wait to get down there and get started. I’ve worked hard. We’ll see how I play down there.
Q. Rhyne, you qualified for Indian Wells but spent most of the time on the USTA Pro Circuit. I notice that the final of the playoff was best-out-of-five sets. Talk a little bit about the Grand Slam experience compared to the smaller tournaments that you play in, the difference in playing a best-out-of-five match.
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, I’ve only played two best-out-of-five matches in my life. One was against Andy and one was in the final of the wild card tournament. It’s definitely a lot different. You got to try to pace yourself. You don’t want to waste any energy early in the match. Obviously you want to try and get that first set. It’s a huge relief to get that first set. I think I’ve seen a stat that the player that wins the first set wins around 70% of three-out-of-five matches. You really want to focus on winning that first set, trying to conserve energy because you know at any point it could turn around and you could be going for four or five hours. So that’s a lot different than the normal two-out-of-three sets you’re going to play on the USTA Pro Circuit.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) Rhyne, who are you traveling with? Are you traveling with Tennys Sandgren?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Tennys will be making the trip. But I’m traveling with my coach Christopher Williams. It will be he and I sharing rooms and doing all that. But, yeah, Tennys is my best friend, so he will be down there. We of course hang out every day, all that. He’ll be going by himself. Of course, we have the Vol team. We love to hang out. We’ll be seeing each other down there for sure.
Q. (Tennis East Coast) Do you feel optimistic about the qualifying chances of your tough opponents in Atlanta?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I know every American has been working hard this off-season. Tim Smyczek has been playing insane tennis to end the year. He kicked my butt the last couple times we played at the end of the year. He still played incredible in the final of the wild card tournament. Denis Kudla is a machine. So is Daniel Kosakowski. They definitely have a great chance of qualifying. I know Denis has actually done it already once actually down in Australia, I think it was last year. I’m definitely pulling for them. We’re all good buddies and I wish them the best.
Q. Speak a little bit about your experience with the U.S. Davis Cup team this year. I know you got a lot of work with those guys when you were with them. Talk about what that time with them was like and any advice Captain Jim Courier gave you.
RHYNE WILLIAMS: I got a great opportunity to go to Monte-Carlo with them to one of the coolest cities on earth. It was an incredible experience. The place is beautiful. Jim was awesome to be around. He’s a great character, a great coach, one of the nicest guys you can meet. He really worked us hard. We got in several hours of practice each day. It was awesome to be around John Isner and the Bryan brothers. Ryan Harrison and I grew up playing each other. It was great to see him again. I hadn’t been around him for a while. We’re great buddies, keep in touch. It was phenomenal to see them get the win. It reminded me of a college match the way we would cheer for them. It was just great. We were all pulling for each other. It was really cool to see the team aspect again.
Q. What are your goals for the year and how does getting a main draw Australian wild card accelerate anything schedule-wise this year?
RHYNE WILLIAMS: Well, I just want to keep making runs in Grand Slams. Hopefully I can get through the qualifying in Wimbledon and the French Open. I would love to be in the main draw of those off my ranking, but that’s going to be extremely tough to do that. I know how hard it is to move up the rankings. Now is the really tricky part to get from the 200s to the low 100s. It’s going to be difficult, but I’d like to keep competing hard and giving myself the best chance to succeed. Hopefully I can see the main draw of Wimbledon and French Open obviously after Australia. That would be great.
TIM CURRY: Thanks, everyone. That will conclude the call. Thank you, Madison and Rhyne, for your time. Safe travels and happy holidays.