In the life of a tennis player, it’s not always obvious to see kindness.
Hardened pros are taught to fight for every point – battle is hardly synonymous with being kind.
But for Madison Keys, the world No. 13 from the USA, spreading kindness has been at the forefront of her mind as professional tennis takes a collective pause amid the coronavirus crisis.
Professional athletes like Keys are not always on the receiving end of kindness.
Behind their computer shields, keyboard warriors regularly fire abuse into the social media sphere, which remains laxly moderated. Keys has had her fair share.
‘Honestly, for me, a lot of the time it’s sort of more anger after I lose matches from people who have bet on the matches. It’s just very nasty stuff,’ Keys, 25, tells Metro.co.uk over the phone from her Florida base.
‘Often it’s bad stuff about my family, wishing harm to them and things like that. It’s not something I would wish on anyone else.
‘I’ve dealt with it personally, but also know that pretty much every other tennis player on the tour has dealt with it.
‘But I’m sure even though we all are used to getting it, every once in a while you are cut deep a little bit.’
The problem is far from limited to tennis. Earlier this month, former Arsenal striker Ian Wright highlighted vile racist abuse directed at him on Instagram; many athletes are subjected to vitriol on a daily basis.
On Friday, Keys hopes to reset the balance.
Her foundation, Kindness Wins, wants to celebrate and spread kindness across the internet on a special day of recognition – aptly named #KindnessWinsDay.
Each ‘kindness call-out’ will recognise an individual who has done something kind for others, while nominating others to do the same.
‘So often you see negative comments on social media,’ she adds. ‘I really just wanted to have a day where all we were trying to do was put out positive messages for other people and acknowledge the great things they are doing.’
Her initiative was not driven from her own experiences. In her work with Fearlessly Girl – the name of the foundation before it was rebranded to become ‘broader and more open to everyone’ – she engaged with young girls who had become accustomed to witnessing negative messaging on social media. According to statistics gathered by her foundation, 87% of young people have witnessed cyberbullying.
‘We’d open questions for younger kids and they were asking about “how do you deal with cyber bullying? We’re dealing with it right now”. It was so sad that at such a young age they’re already dealing with it,’ says the former US Open finalist.
Her organisation works with other athletes – skier Mikaela Shiffrin is the latest on board – to show that kindness can still thrive, even in the most competitive of environments.
‘I think you can want to win and you can try your best and be as competitive as you possibly can be but also still be nice to people,’ says Keys. ‘I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think it can be both.
‘For the most part, I think it is both. On the tour we’re all pretty close. We see each other more than we see our families most of the time so we’re definitely there for each other most of the time.
‘We can go out and play each other and you want to win the match that day but once the match is over and you’re back in the locker room, you’re just people.’
In her own sport, one example of kindness sticks out above the rest.
At the US Open last year, teenage sensation Coco Gauff was beaten comfortably by defending champion Naomi Osaka. As the tearful youngster attempted to head off court, Osaka invited her for an emotional dual on-court interview after the match.
‘The way they both just talked to each other – it was a real moment,’ says Keys. ‘I always get really happy when I see those.’
At the same tournament, two years earlier, Keys was the recipient of kindness from her compatriot and good friend Sloane Stephens.
Both were playing in their first Grand Slam final, on home soil, but it was a one-sided affair, with Stephens claiming her first major title.
After a heartfelt embrace at the net, Stephens sat next to her friend – rather than in her own seating area, as is typically custom – in a touching moment that still resonates with Keys.
‘In the moment it was really tough for me to handle, obviously, in public, with so many people watching and all that,’ she adds.
‘For Sloane to comfort me and give me all of her support in that moment was really nice and special. It’s one of the reasons she’s one of my closest friends.’
While all too aware of the negativity in the online realm, Keys is appreciative of how it has allowed her to be better connected to her fan base and is still adamant that the positives of social media outweigh the negatives.
The message of spreading kindness is particularly pertinent, she feels, in the current Covid-19 climate.
‘I definitely think we’re more appreciative of people because we’re not really busy, we’re not running around, we’re not preoccupied with other things and I think we’ve been able to take a pause and think about how grateful we are for so many things that we take for granted,’ she says.
‘So I definitely think there’s a gratitude and an appreciation that’s been pretty apparent during this time period. Hopefully it can stick around.
‘If someone is kind to you then it makes you happy and it makes you acknowledge, “Wow, that was something so small but it meant a lot to me”. Just having that happen to you, it makes you think about how you could do that for someone else.
‘When you’re doing that, it might start off as something you’re thinking about but eventually it just becomes a habit and I think that would be a great thing for basically the entire world right now, just to be a little bit kinder to each other.’
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