Australian Open Day 2: Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams breeze to second round

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal made light of scorching conditions and doubts over their form as they got off to sizzling starts at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Fernando Verdasco in their first-round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, on January 17, 2017. Andy Brownbill / AP
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There was no easing into a title defence for Novak Djokovic, starting his Australian Open against the man who upset Rafael Nadal here last year in the first round.

He lifted when he most needed to Tuesday night, holding off Fernando Verdasco in a 71-minute, momentum-swinging second set before winning 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-2. There were glares, stares and frustrated outbursts from both players who met in a tense semi-final earlier this month in Doha, where Djokovic won after saving five match points.

“When I saw the draw, I thought to myself this is going to be the only match I’m going to focus on,” said Djokovic, aiming to be the first man to win seven Australian titles. “If he’s on, you never know.

“I started well with a great intensity. First and third sets went well, second set was a gamble — pretty close.”

Another six-time champion had a tough first round, with Serena Williams needing to produce some of her best tennis to get far enough ahead against Belinda Bencic that a late lapse wasn’t a real worry.

After starting her quest for a record 23rd Grand Slam title with a 6-4, 6-3 first-round win, Williams walked into her news conference wearing a black shirt with the word “Equality” printed across the front.

It was still before midnight Monday in the United States, where the holiday in honour of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was nearly ending.

“With today being Martin Luther King Day, it’s important to spread the message of equality,” Williams said. “Something he talked about a lot and he tried to spread a lot, is equality and rights for everyone.”

Asked if she was concerned about the future of equality in the US, Williams declined to get into specifics but said the issue is “a concern for just everyone in general.”

“We want to make sure we always continue to move forward and always have the opportunity to have equal rights for all.”

Williams became engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian during the holiday break, and he was in the crowd watching her play at Rod Laver Arena. She has been asked repeatedly about her wedding plans since arriving in Australia. She gave a clearer time frame for discussion on that.

“February I’ll start looking at the bigger picture of my life,” she said. “But right now I’m just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about.”

For five games in the second set, Williams played almost flawless tennis. Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff.

Williams, after three double faults — including one on match point — and “some errors on key points,” held on to improve her record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.

Nadal, also on the comeback from a couple of months on the sidelines following the US. Open with an injured left wrist, had a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Florian Mayer to go one better than he did last year in Australia.

“Great. I’m happy to do an interview with you — last year, I didn’t have the chance!” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “Very happy this year.”

Third-seeded Milos Raonic, who reached the semi-finals in Australia last year and the final at Wimbledon, opened with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Dustin Brown.

On a day when the temperature reached almost 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), No. 11 David Goffin was pushed all the way before beating 19-year-old qualifier Reilly Opelka, making his Grand Slam debut, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Also advancing were No. 8 Dominc Thiem, No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 18 Richard Gasquet, No. 24 Alexander Zverev, No. 25 Gilles Simon, and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Two women who had breakout seasons in 2016, and opened this season with tournament titles, advanced in straight sets.

US. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo. Johanna Konta, a surprise semi-finalist in her debut at the Australian Open last year, won the Sydney International last week and opened here with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens.

Lucie Safarova beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1 and will next play Williams.

WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova and former No 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki had straight-set wins.

Heather Watson beat local hope and 18th-seeded Sam Stosur, the 2011 US. Open champion, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0.

Also progressing to the second round were No. 14 Elena Vesnina, No. 21 Caroline Garcia, No 28 Alize Cornet, No. 30 Ekaterina Makarova, No. 31 Yulia Putintseva and Naomi Osaka, who beat Thai wild-card entry Luksika Kumkhum 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5.

* Associated Press

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