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Williams, Osaka make flying starts as Covid-delayed Australian Open begins

By AFP - Feb 08,2021 - Last updated at Feb 08,2021

Japan’s Naomi Osaka hits a return against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during their women’s singles match at the Australian Open tournament in Melbourne on Monday (AFP photo by William West)

MELBOURNE — Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka wasted little time in breezing into the second round as the Australian Open began on Monday, three weeks later than originally scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan’s Osaka, the third seed, struck the first serve on Rod Laver Arena against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the women’s singles and strode to the net to touch racquets with her opponent just 68 minutes later after a 6-1, 6-2 victory.

“I was really nervous coming into this match. I just wanted to play well,” Osaka told a smattering of spectators on the socially-distanced centre court. 

Williams started her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in style with a 6-1, 6-1 romp past Germany’s Laura Siegemund in 56 minutes.

“This was a good start, it was vintage Serena,” said the 39-year-old, playing an unparalleled 100th match at the tournament and turning heads in a vivid, one-legged catsuit. 

The 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu won an emotional first match back after 15 months out against Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

The 20-year-old Canadian last played at the WTA Finals in October 2019 at Shenzen, China, where she suffered the knee injury that scuppered her entire 2020 season.

French Open champion Iga Swiatek, 19, beat Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-3 to reach the second round and continue her Grand Slam winning streak.

Men’s third seed and US Open champion Dominic Thiem was made to work hard in the first set by Kazakh veteran Mikhail Kukushkin before coming through 7-6 (7/2), 6-2, 6-3.

“He’s very experienced and the first set was super-challenging,” said Thiem, beaten by Novak Djokovic in five epic sets in the Australian Open final last year.

Sixth seed Alexander Zverev had a harder time, dropping a set and smashing a racquet before grinding to a 6-7 (8/10), 7-6 (7/5), 6-3, 6-2 win against American Marcos Giron.

“He played incredible,” said the German, who lost to Thiem in the final in New York and the Melbourne semifinals last year.

“He had me on the ropes, particularly in the second set tie-break.” 

The tournament is known as the “Happy Slam” for its convivial atmosphere but the pandemic has overshadowed the event this year with fewer spectators, mandatory mask-wearing and fans unable to circulate freely around the grounds.

Preparations had to be hastily rearranged as late as last Wednesday when a coronavirus case at a tournament hotel — the city’s first local infection in 28 days — forced a suspension of play. 

Hundreds of players and officials were tested and all were negative.

Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open winner, was the first significant casualty of the women’s championship when the 23rd-seeded German lost 6-0, 6-4 to 63rd-ranked American Bernarda Pera.

There were no such problems for the 2014 men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, as he reached the second round for a 16th straight time with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win against Portugal’s Paulo Sousa.

“It’s always amazing and special to come back here. Winning my first Grand Slam was something unbelievable, amazing memories,” said the 35-year-old Swiss 17th seed. 

Milos Raonic, the 14th seed from Canada, also enjoyed serene progress through to the second round with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over Federico Coria of Argentina.

But Gael Monfils, the French 10th seed, is out after being stunned 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 by Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, the World No. 86, in three hours and 46 minutes.

Men’s No. 1 Djokovic, looking for a record-extending ninth Melbourne Park crown, begins his quest in the late night match on Rod Laver Arena against France’s Jeremy Chardy.

Women’s World No. 2 Simona Halep, who has been battling a back injury, will open the evening session against Australian wild card Lizette Cabrera.

Top women’s seed Ashleigh Barty, defending champion Sofia Kenin and 20-time men’s singles Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal all begin their challenge on Tuesday.


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