NEW YORK, NY, USA -- Madison Keys drew a difficult opponent in the first round of the 2017 US Open, but during the tense moments of the match, she was able to unlock her best tennis.
The No.15 seed from the United States defeated Elise Mertens, the World No.39 from Belgium, 6-3, 7-6(6), under a closed roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday night.
"I think I served fairly well," said Keys in her press conference after the match. "I think the biggest thing I'm happy with was coming in. I don't think I've ever volleyed that well in my life. Billie Jean [King] even texted me about my volley, so I'm feeling really high on myself."
22-year-old Keys has had an injury-plagued season, but won her first title of the year -- and the first hardcourt title of her career -- earlier this month at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.
Mertens, however, has been one of the fastest-rising players on the WTA this year, as she won the first title of her career at the Hobart International in January, and has just entered the Top 40 after starting 2017 ranked outside the Top 100.
The first meeting between the two players was competitive throughout. Keys had initial jitters in the first game of the match, quickly going down double break point. But she saved both with incredible serves en route to a hold, and then broke for 2-0 when Mertens hit a double fault down break point.
Keys, however, started to cede pivotal points with unforced errors, frequently off the backhand, and Mertens immediately got back on serve at 2-1 after a rally which she won with a drop shot following a successful lob.
Four consecutive holds followed, and although many of the games were tightly contested, neither player had a break point in those games. That ended when poorly timed errors from Mertens gave Keys a chance to serve out the set at 5-3.
Keys did so with aplomb -- two forehand winners, two aces. Even though the American had 19 unforced errors during the set, she was able to overcome those with 13 winners, and Mertens’ three winners left her powerless to quell the tide once Keys entered a hot patch.
Despite the electric manner in which Keys closed out the first set, the 21-year-old Belgian remained unfazed. She continued to play steady, well-struck shots, holding the form that saw her reach the semifinals of the Connecticut Open last week, propelling her to her current career-high ranking.
Mertens held firm down double break point at 2-2 in the second set, as Keys failed to get her returns in play either time, and held for 3-2 when another error slipped off the 15th seed’s racquet.
Keys had found a good rhythm on her forehand by this point, hitting many clean winners. But she was unable to find an opening on Mertens’ serve well into the set. There were no breaks of service up to 5-5, and by then, the points were zooming by, with minimal rallies and fuss.
Keys seemed to have once again summmoned her top form at the end of the set, breaking for 6-5 with a forehand putaway. But Mertens shocked Keys and the Ashe Stadium crowd when she broke back with another terrific lob, sending the second set to a tiebreak.
Keys took the initial lead in the tiebreak when Mertens hit two unforced errors -- a backhand into the net, and a forehand long -- to give the American a 4-2 lead at the first changeover.
But the Belgian was swiftly back on serve at 4-3 when Keys hit another unforced error off of her shaky backhand. The backhand failed Keys again later, as she found the net with it to give Mertens a set point on her serve at 6-5, and a third set appeared to be in the offing.
But Keys saved that set point by crushing a forehand that Mertens could not return, and, after the change of ends, hit another bruising unreturned forehand to set up her first match point.
"I was really happy with those two forehands late in that tiebreaker," Keys exclaimed after the match.
Keys hit one final powerful serve, and Mertens returned it long to complete the match in the American's favor after 90 minutes.
Keys finished the match with 44 unforced errors, but she outranked Mertens in winners by a ratio of 32 to nine. It was those winners, particularly off the forehand side, that came at the most crucial of times to prevent this match from heading into a deciding set.
Keys therefore advances to the second round of the tournament, and is surely hoping to outshine her career-best performances at the US Open, which are fourth-round appearances in the last two years. She next plays either Tatjana Maria of Germany or American wild card Ashley Kratzer.