Tennis

Sizzling start for Serena

Watched by fiance Ohanian, Williams outclasses dangerous Bencic

Two matches in four months, a dodgy knee and sweltering heat had doubts swirling around Serena Williams as she took centre court for her first-round match against talented Swiss Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open yesterday.

It took 79 minutes for the 35-year-old American to bat them all away in an emphatic 6-4, 6-3 win at the Rod Laver Arena, providing a near-perfect launch of her bid to clinch a record 23rd Grand Slam title in the professional era.

Fiance Alexis Ohanian, a social media entrepreneur, was a spectator in the crowd, but the wedding plans remain on hold for at least another match, and much longer if the American has her way at Melbourne Park.

"I just kept saying that in February, I'll start looking at the bigger picture of my life," said second seed Williams.

"But, right now, I'm just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about."

The 19-year-old Bencic, who is expected to have a big future in the game, was supposed to give her opponent something to think about.

The former world No. 7 had upset Williams in Toronto in 2015 and became the youngest player to do so in a completed match since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova felled her at the 2004 WTA Finals.

Bencic trailed 3-1 within minutes of a match that started in oppressive heat yesterday, but battled back to 4-4 in the first set before Williams changed the game with a single shot.

Pumping her creaky knees to lunge for a wide backhand, Williams sliced an improbable cross-court winner past the net-bound Bencic to hold serve.

It was a deflating moment for Bencic, who had been on a roll, and she duly dropped the set when Williams fired a return that all but punched a hole through her racket.

From there, Williams roared to 5-0 in the second set with only a late slump stalling her victory march.

Williams will now meet Czech Lucie Safarova, a former world No. 5 and French Open finalist, in the second round.

Third seed Agnieszka Radwanska survived a dogfight to move into the second round yesterday as she bids to end her long wait for a maiden Grand Slam title.

The Pole battled past Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 and will next play Croat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who beat Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang in three sets.

A RECORD 75 ACES

In the men's draw, Novak Djokovic launched his Australian Open campaign in style as Ivo Karlovic smashed a record 75 aces in an unprecedented, 84-game marathon.

World No. 2 Djokovic gave further evidence of his return to form as he saw off Fernando Verdasco 6-1, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 at the Rod Laver Arena.

Djokovic fell off the top of the rankings during a sudden slump last year, but he showed signs of a revival by beating new world No. 1 Andy Murray in this month's Doha final.

He fended off five match-points against Verdasco in the Doha semis, and had to fight through a 71-minute second set against the Spanish left-hander for his win yesterday.

It was Djokovic's 15th straight win at the Australian Open as he seeks his third straight title and his seventh overall, which would break Roy Emerson's record set in the 1960s.

"I'm very pleased with the first round, considering I had one of the toughest first-round draws, considering his form, how well he played against me in Doha," Djokovic said.

Karlovic outlasted Horacio Zeballos in an epic that stretched for five hours and 15 minutes, and ended 6-7 (6/8), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 22-20.

Karlovic beat Thomas Johansson's Australian Open record of 51 aces in a match, set in 2005, and 84 games was a new mark for the tournament in the tie-break era, edging the 83 in Andy Roddick's 2003 defeat of Younes El Aynaoui.

It was one of the longest matches in the tournament's history, although still short of the five hours and 53 minutes played by Djokovic and Nadal in the 2012 men's final.

"I will remember this one forever," said the Croat after his landmark win.

World No. 3 Milos Raonic, a semi-finalist last year, made light work of Germany's Dustin Brown in his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win.

Injury-hit Rafael Nadal appeared rejuvenated under new coach and former world No. 1 Carlos Moya, beating Florian Mayer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. - WIRE SERVICES

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