Cincinnati Open is like coming home for Madison Keys

Currently ranked No. 18 in the world, Madison Keys is a 24-year-old American tennis star and a four-time winner on the WTA Tour. The 2017 US Open runner-up has been checking in with ESPN.com throughout the summer to talk about her season and life on tour. She filled us in after her first-round win on Tuesday at the Cincinnati Open.

MASON, Ohio — People always look shocked when I tell them the Cincinnati Open is one of my favorite tournaments. They’re always like, “No offense, but why?” But I just love, love the Midwest. It’s really the best. I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, in the northwest corner of the state, and Mason, where this tournament is played, reminds me so much of home. Sure, that’s partly because every street has some sort of fast food restaurant or retail chain on it, but it’s also seeing people walking their dogs through their neighborhoods. Everything just feels so small town and so Midwest. It makes me feel nostalgic being here.

There are so many things I love to do when I’m in town for this event. I usually make it to Cracker Barrel at least once, and sometimes if I’m bored, I just go to Target and walk around the store. And let’s face it: You always need something at Target, and it’s pretty much impossible to walk out empty-handed. And I have to get Graeter’s ice cream while I’m here. Sometimes I’ll go before the tournament starts, and sometimes during, sometimes when I’m done, sometimes all of those times … What? Don’t judge. I justify it by eating really healthy the rest of the day and then totally ruining that with ice cream. Chocolate chip cookie dough and mint chocolate chip are my favorites, but it’s all so good, and I might go get some tonight since we’re on the topic.

Can you tell how much I love being here?

King’s Island amusement park is across the street, and our player credentials actually get us free access into it. It’s incredible. I’ve been three or four times now over the years. And it’s not just me (I swear!). I always see other players there, too. I’ve seen Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and others in the past. Every time I go, it seems they’ve added a new ride.

I go on every roller coaster and every thrill ride. A few years ago, I brought my fitness coach, and he was panicking while we were going up on one of the coasters. Right before we dropped, he was trying to pump himself up. He kept saying, “It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.” I was like, “Dude, we’re going to make it. It’s just a roller coaster. See that 5-year-old in front of us? He’s doing fine.”

I’ve never let him forget it. Whenever we’re here, I’m like, “Remember that time you almost lost it on the roller coaster?” He hasn’t been back there since.

Am I selling you on the Midwest yet? It’s the best place to grow up. I love everything about it. Who needs to live by the ocean? I mean, we have rivers and some lakes. I grew up by the Mississippi River, and I would swim in that as a kid. In retrospect, I don’t really recommend that (it’s not exactly blue water), but it really is a great place to be a kid. I live in Florida now because it’s best for training. However, I don’t usually get to spend all that much time there. But Wimbledon didn’t exactly go as I had hoped this year, and I ended up heading back home after my second-round loss. While I was disappointed to be eliminated so early, it was nice to be home — and I put my unexpected free time to use and channeled my inner-HGTV star and did some serious home improvements.

I added black shiplap to one of my walls, and I bought a new couch and — thanks to some help and moral support from my friend and fellow tennis player Irina Falconi — added some accents to my kitchen island. It was a serious ordeal. We needed a miter saw, which you have to push down, and the blade cuts the wood. That’s the extent of my power tool usage, and you better believe I was wearing goggles and steel-toe boots. I was trying to be so careful and, you know, not lose a finger or toe or anything, so it probably was the slowest process in the world, but we did it. In reality, I only made a few cuts, and Irina did most of the work because otherwise we might still be there.

But after that, it was back to tennis. I played in an exhibition with Venus Williams in Atlanta and participated in World Team Tennis, and then it was back to the tour life for the Washington Open. I’ve had a couple of tough losses during the hard-court season so far, but I try to find whatever positives I can and learn from every match. I was able to beat Garbine Muguruza today in three sets. Anytime you can beat a two-time Grand Slam champion — and a former winner here at Cincinnati as well — it’s a good thing.

I had a tough loss last week in Toronto against Donna Vekic, losing both the second and third sets in a tiebreak. I lost the first set today in a tiebreak, and it was starting to feel all too familiar. I was trailing in the second-set tiebreak, so there was a lot going through my head at that point. But I said to myself, “Whatever you’re doing here isn’t working, so you have to change it up.” I knew I just had to trust myself to make things happen, or I would be sitting on a plane later.

At this point in my career, I know it’s better to leave it all out there, no matter the ultimate outcome. If I can walk off the court knowing I did everything I could to win, it makes accepting what happens much easier. And today, that paid off. I’m usually calm and composed, but when I fought back to take the second set, I yelled and clinched my fists. I honestly surprised myself by my emotions.

With the US Open fast approaching, wins like that are so important. I can’t wait for my home Slam and the last one of the year. It’s such a different vibe from every other tournament, and the crowd is so electric. I think I hold the record for both the latest and second-latest women’s matches of all time. I’m pretty proud of that.

There really isn’t anything in tennis like playing a night match on Arthur Ashe. After a certain point, they even allow most of the ushers to go home, so all the die-hards are able to move down to the lower bowl. It feels like everyone left is just living and dying with every point. It’s so much fun.

I love the rowdiness of the crowd. One time I was playing ahead of Rafael Nadal, and I could tell no one in the stands cared about watching me. They were all just talking. It was so loud, I couldn’t hear the umpire. I would be like, “What did you just call there?” I’ll admit that night it was a little annoying, but I understood. It’s Rafa, after all, and it’s just part of the New York atmosphere.

I’ve played well there in the past and hope to do so again this year, but I’m first focused on this week in Cincinnati. Aside from trying to play my best tennis, I’ve still hopefully got a Target run or two in my future and more ice cream to eat.