HOBART, Australia - A year removed from the tournament that kickstarted her breakout season, Elise Mertens looked like she never left.
The No.2 seed opened her title defense at the Hobart Internation with a 6-0, 6-4 win over Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara, moving through to the second round in 73 minutes.
Now ranked World No.36, Mertens arrived in Hobart a year ago ranked World No.127, but stormed through qualifying and the main draw to win her first career WTA title and break into the world's Top 100 for the first time.
The Belgian did not drop a set en route to the title a year ago, and ran her streak to 15 straight sets won in Tasmania.
"I'm really happy to be back - this is where it all began," Mertens said after the match. "I'm just happy I can play on this court again, because I feel like I'm at home here. I hope I can continue - I feel like my level is there...and I hope I can go further in the tournament."
In Monday's first round match, Mertens was largely in control from the first ball, as she came through a pair of marathon games to stamp her authority on the first set.
After breaking on her fourth opportunity in the first game, and saving a break point of her own to consolidate, the Belgian No.1 was largely untroubled from there as she pocketed the first set in 25 minutes.
"I really loved the Hopman Cup - it was relaxed but also a little tense, because...it's an honor to play for your country," Mertens said of her warmup to her first official WTA action of the season, where she represented Belgium at the Hopman Cup in Perth.
"I played some good matches and hopefully I can play some good ones here. It was really, really nice to see some top players...and learn a lot."
The World No.101 offered stern resistance in the second set, responding to break Mertens for the first time in the match to get on the board after she surrendered a seventh straight game.
Though Mertens hit right back with a fifth break of the Japanese player's serve to ensure she never trailed in the match, Nara would not go quietly, and forced the No.2 seed to produce some of her best tennis to secure a straight sets victory.
The 22-year-old saved a pair of break points in the fourth game of set two, and then came through another marathon service game in her next trip to the line to keep Nara's attempted comeback at bay, which set her up to close in strong fashion.
Nara saved a match point with emphatic tennis in the ninth game, rifling a forehand winner to seal it, forcing the No.2 seed to earn the win behind her serve.
Mertens did so with aplomb, hitting a pair of aces and a service winner, to move safely through to the second round with her sixth ace of the match.
The Beglian served at a 72% clip in the match, which was the difference as the match got closer in the second set. The World No.36 struck 22 winners in the match as well, more than double Nara's total of nine.
Next up, Mertens will face rising Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia, who defeated wildcard Lizette Cabrera in straight sets in first round action on Sunday.
Said Mertens: "We played in juniors, but that's a long time ago. It's going to be an interesting match - she's tall, big serves and a lefty, too, so I'll see how it goes."