Madison Keys serves to Bernarda Pera during the second round...

Madison Keys serves to Bernarda Pera during the second round of the U.S. Open on Thursday. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

The U.S. Open ended for Madison Keys last year in a long embrace with Sloane Stephens at the net in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Her close friend Stephens had just beaten her in the final, and there was both disappointment and plenty to feel good about having made the first Grand Slam final of her career. Especially since the beginning of the season was pre-empted by surgery on her left wrist.

That long run at the Open last year wasn’t a harbinger for her 2018 season. There was a quarterfinal finish at the Australian Open to start the year and a semifinal loss to Stephens at the French Open. Other than that it’s been fairly so-so, with a series of injuries — right wrist, abdominal, rib — getting in the way.

On Thursday, though, Keys was healthy enough to score a solid 6-4, 6-1 win over Bernarda Pera.

“I got sick after the Australian, then I had an injury in Rome,” Keys said. “I mean, it comes with the territory. I still had good results throughout the year. I obviously would like to have been able to play more matches, but I can’t change my body, so…”

Keys is ranked 14th and is defending the 1,300 points she earned for her runner-up finish here last year. Any pressure in that?

“I feel pressure from your question right there. Geez,” Keys said to a round of laughter. “I’m trying not to think of it that way. Really just taking it match by match. It’s my first time having to defend a big result like that, so that’s something I’m going to have to deal with every day. The biggest thing is to not put pressure on myself and think it’s a failed tournament if I don’t make the finals or win.”

It was a good day for the Special K Club on Thursday.

Wimbledon winner Angelique Kerber weathered a strong effort from Johanna Larsson at Ashe Stadium, beating her, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, after holding two match points on Larsson’s serve in the second set. From 5-2 up Kerber lost five straight games to drop the set.

“I think that I played, like, good until 5-2 in the second set,” Kerber said. “Then I think it is tennis that you have to play until the last point. She came back. She played good when she was down, and she had nothing to lose then.”

She will now get a tough cookie in the third round, Dominika Cibulkova, who managed a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 win over Su-Wei Hsieh.

Petra Kvitova continued her strong play with a well-fought 7-5, 6-3 win over Yafan Wang. She picks up a strong young player in Aryna Sabalenka in the next round. Sabalenka defeated veteran Vera Zvonereva. The 20-year-old Sabalenka is coming off her first career victory, at New Haven last Saturday.

“Definitely she’s on fire right now and in great form,” Kvitova said. “Sometimes that she really serves and has one great shot. I don’t see her as a kind of player who is moving side to side, playing lots of rallies. So overall I think that we are playing a little bit similar game. I’m gonna try to be the one who puts the pressure on her and not she will put pressure on me.”

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