Keys is finding joy on court and winning again in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Madison Keys says she’s playing carefree tennis again and doesn’t feel any pressure at her first Grand Slam tournament since her emotional loss to Sloane Stephens in the U.S. Open final five months ago.

Perhaps even more importantly, her coach, Lindsay Davenport, says the 22-year-old American has put an injury-plagued year behind her and is healthier than she’s been in a long time.

After beating the No. 8-seeded Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-2 in a brisk 68 minutes on Monday, Keys is also back into the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the first time in three years. And she’s looking increasingly confident with each win at Melbourne Park.

“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court,” she said. “I realized once I just let things happen and trusted myself and just played my game, good things were happening and good outcomes were happening. So I just keep focusing on that and not putting as much pressure on myself.”

Keys has not just played well in her first four matches at the Australian Open, she’s dominating. She’s lost 19 games in four matches — the fewest among the women who are left — and she’s averaging just over an hour on court per match.

A year ago, Keys wasn’t even able to make the trip to Australia. She had just undergone surgery on her injured left wrist and was sitting at home with a cast on her arm. Her return to the tour several months later was equally tough, with a string of early losses sending her ranking tumbling out of the top 10.

But then Keys had her remarkable run at the U.S. Open, rallying to win back-to-back matches late at night before finally running out of steam against Stephens in a lopsided final. The loss was “devastating,” she said, but she’s since found new perspective on the entire two-week experience in New York.

“I was so happy to even get there in the first place after having such a rough beginning of my season, that after telling myself that a couple of times I definitely finally moved on,” she said. “And just wanted to put myself in the same position again so that maybe I could have a different outcome.”

Keys shut down her season early last year to give herself time to recover both mentally and physically. She’s now coming into 2018 feeling fresh and playing pain-free, and Davenport believes she could give herself another chance at a major title very soon.

“It’s so easy for people in the immediacy after the (U.S. Open) match to criticize her, ‘Oh, she’s never going to do it,’ or ‘Oh, she played bad,’ but no one really knows everything that was going on,” Davenport said. “The poor thing played like every match at 1 a.m., she was exhausted, her leg was bothering her.”

“In the offseason it was apparent to all of us on her team that she’s going down the right path, whether that means that it’s here that it all happens or maybe it’s a few months,” Davenport added. “She’s just super happy to be healthy, to be playing, to be enjoying it again.”

Keys next plays two-time major winner Angelique Kerber, who is enjoying a resurgence of her own after a disappointing 2017 and is so far undefeated this year, winning 13 straight matches. Kerber, the Australian and U.S. Open winner in 2016, is the only Grand Slam champion remaining in the women’s singles draw.

Keys knows it will be a difficult match and isn’t trying to get ahead of herself and start thinking about another possible Grand Slam final.

But when she does get back there, Davenport believes that Keys will be ready.

“She wants to get another chance to play the biggest match of her life,” Davenport said. “And play it differently.”