ROCK ISLAND, ILL., hard by the Mississippi River, is best known for producing weapons: The local arsenal is the largest government-owned munitions plant in the country. The latest model to roll off the line is the forehand of one Madison Keys. The 19-year-old Rock Island native doesn't stroke the ball so much as smite it; her shots should require a license. "You have to keep the ball in the lines," says Keys, "but there are no rules on how hard you can hit it."
To the dismay of five opponents—to say nothing of countless yellow balls—Keys brought her concussive game to bear at the Australian Open last week. In the third round she scored the signature win of her young career, beating Petra Kvitova, the defending Wimbledon champ. Two rounds later Keys overcame a thigh injury to outlast and outblast Venus Williams in three sets.
Though Keys lost her next match, to Serena Williams, the tournament was her tennis cotillion, her arrival into high society. In making it to the semifinals, she reached the top 20 in the rankings. She also served notice (at 120 mph) that she is a star in ascent. "I think she can be the best in the world," says Serena. "She hits a very, very hard ball." Data supports this. At last year's French Open, organizers put sensors on the balls. Keys clocked the fastest average ground stroke at 80 miles per hour. Second fastest? Novak Djokovic at 77 mph.
Christopher Reeve once said of the character for which he's best known, "What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely." In Australia, her first major tournament under new coach Lindsay Davenport, Keys married force with judicious decision making. "It just all clicked," Keys says.
Keys's ferocious ball striking is offset by a personality that is anything but. Davenport says one of her goals is to make "Madison a little meaner on the court." (This is full disclosure, but it also speaks to Keys's demeanor: She is a contributor to SI Kids.)
With her performance in Australia, Keys enters a new phase of her career. More fame and obligations. More expectations. More motivation for opponents to beat her. She says she's ready. If she continues to hit the holy hell out of the ball, there is not a closed door she can't pound open.
—L. Jon Wertheim
MOST TEENAGERS get jobs in the summer or hang out with friends. But last year Katie Ledecky spent the 10 weeks before the start of her senior year of high school toying with swimming's record book. The 17-year-old from Bethesda, Md., set and reset world marks five times last season: She now holds history's fastest times in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle. Already an Olympic gold medalist from London in the 800 meters, Ledecky has never lost a major international final in her three best events. And if her first race of 2015 is any indication—she missed her world-record mark in the 800 (8:11.00) by 21 hundredths of a second in a meet last month—Ledecky is ready to exert a Phelpsian dominance over the world championships this August in Russia.
As a kid growing up in Bulgaria, Grigor Dimitrov was blessed with tennis skills that recalled the fluid game of Roger Federer. Such talents were also a curse. The similarities were so obvious that Baby Fed, as Dimitrov was nicknamed as a teenager, buckled under the weight of expectation. Now, though, the 23-year-old Dimitrov has married potential with execution and rocketed up the charts—the same trajectory a certain Swiss star once took. In 2014, Dimitrov won 50 matches, three tournament titles and reached the Wimbledon semifinals, a breakthrough season by any measure. At the Australian Open he reached the fourth round, losing to Andy Murray, and is now ranked 11th. "I'm happy overall but not satisfied," Dimitrov says. "I think that's a good sign."
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for a breakout U.S. star at this summer's Women's World Cup in Canada, keep an eye on Sydney Leroux. Only Abby Wambach has scored more goals in a U.S. uniform over the last two years than the 24-year-old forward, who has 19. And her rollicking Instagram and Twitter feeds reveal an athlete who's ready for her star turn. There could also be plenty of drama for her playing in her native Canada. Born in Surrey, B.C., to a Canadian mother, Sandi Leroux, and an American father, Ray Chadwick, who pitched for the California Angels in 1986, Leroux moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., when she was 15. She switched to competing for the U.S. in 2008 after playing for Canada as a youth. In 2013, Leroux said she had been the object of racist taunts from Canadian fans, and after scoring the final goal in a 3--0 U.S. victory over Canada, Leroux celebrated by holding up the U.S. badge on her jersey.
AT AN AGE when most sprinters contemplate hanging up their spikes, Justin Gatlin is just hitting his stride. Two years after he won Olympic bronze in the 100 meters in London and 10 years after he won gold in Athens, the 32-year-old Gatlin put together a dominating 2014 season, posting the world's two fastest times in the 200 meters and six of the top seven in the 100. Setting personal bests in both distances, he was undefeated in 18 races—albeit none against Usain Bolt, who was limited by a foot injury for most of last season. With Bolt expected back, the track world will be focused on August's track and field world championships in Beijing, site of Bolt's smashing Olympic debut in '08. Gatlin missed those Games while serving a four-year suspension for a '06 doping violation. That infraction still colors his story, but in '15, Gatlin—four years older than Bolt—can write a new chapter by becoming the oldest fastest man on earth.
LESS THAN two years ago Kelvin Gastelum was a 21-year-old afterthought on the UFC reality series The Ultimate Fighter. Then the former Arizona high school wrestling champ surprised everyone by becoming the youngest winner in the show's 17 seasons. Over the next two years, despite struggles to make weight, the welterweight was undefeated, including a November win over Jake Ellenberger, who tapped out in the first round thanks to a rear-naked choke hold by Gastelum. His winning streak ended last Saturday when he lost a split decision to Tyron Woodley. It was only Gastelum's first challenge of 2015: UFC boss Dana White has announced that Gastelum is moving up to middleweight, where Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva await.
Photograph by Michael Dodge/Getty Images
FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (LEDECKY)
QUINN ROONEY/GETTY IMAGES (DIMITROV)
ERIK ISAKSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LEROUX)
BOB CROSLIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GATLIN)
BRAD SWONETZ FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GASTELUM)