Having escaped from a "deep, dark pit of despair" last season, a rejuvenated Madison Keys prevailed 7-6(2) 7-5 in an all-American duel with Sofia Kenin to reach the second round of Australian Open 2022 on Monday.
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The world No.51 lifted her first title in over two years at the Adelaide 250 event and produced another accomplished display to dismiss the Australian Open 2020 champion at John Cain Arena.
Keys, relishing competing once again, advances to meet Romanian Jaqueline Cristan, who beat Belgian Greet Minnen in straight sets.
"At this point every first round is tough, but when you have to go up against a Grand Slam champion it's never easy," said Keys, who reached the semifinals at Melbourne Park in 2015.
"I think knowing that she was going to compete so well, I just had a really good mentality and attitude. I had a couple of opportunities I didn’t really capitalise upon and I was able to reset and continue to play well.
"I had my first real run in a Slam here, I missed last year, so absolutely ecstatic to be back in Melbourne. It would mean the world to have another run here."
World No.13 Kenin, playing only her third tournament since July due to a foot injury and contracting Covid, held a break point in the very first game, but was denied by a leaping Keys kick serve.
It was a very confident start from Keys, skipping off the baseline after pinging a glorious forehand down the line in the opening exchanges for a 2-1 hold to love.
The 26-year-old, with just 11 match wins to her name in 2021, carved out a 30-all opening at 4-3 with a couple of crunching groundstrokes, forcing Kenin to serve herself out of trouble.
Both forehands were fizzing, both serves were lasering in, and the Americans were opening up the court in a collection of riveting rallies.
Into a tiebreak, and a triple barrage of inside-out forehands gained a telling advantage for Keys, who took a one-set lead with a booming ace.
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"My serve was helping me out a lot today, being able to close that out, to start on the front foot and to not have to work my way back into the match was really helpful," explained the world No.51, winning 87 per cent of points off first delivery.
"I feel like I've really found my rhythm with that, it really helped me close out the first and second set in big moments. I'm going to make sure it's ready for the second round."
Crouching towards the court, Keys connected with a backhand at net height to arrow a backhand winner to skim the tramline by a whisker. That gem of a shot at 4-4 gifted her a chance to serve out the match.
Kenin cut two deft drop shots and two consecutive lob winners to keep her challenge alive, but Keys unlocked the necessary points again, and a 15th ace enabled her to serve out a huge victory at the second attempt.
Keys describes her rocky 2021 as "something I could add to my experience bucket and learn from.”
The 2017 US Open finalist couldn't feature at AO 2021 due to Covid and became powerless against self-inflicted pressure to catch up with her peers.
Now, that is long gone. Realising everyone "starts from zero" in the new season, Keys' fresh outlook and positivity reaped instant rewards with the Adelaide silverware.
But what are the tools Keys used to overturn her 2021 rut?
"I'm not taking it quite as seriously, that's the biggest difference this year," explained the American.
"One of the first things that made me snap out of it was this girl on Tiktok. Her name is 'Tinx'. She’s constantly saying 'comparison is the thief of joy'.
"It just really made me change my perspective on comparing everything I've done and doing to everyone around me. It was just making me miserable.
"Also my coach (Georgi Rumenov) has really helped. Before every match he says 'There is no need to, there is no have to. We’re just going to focus on this singular match'."
Monday's first singular match in Melbourne proves Keys is out to banish the demons of last season in style.