Melbourne: A focused Serena Williams sent an ominous Australian Open warning with a 49-minute first-round demolition on Tuesday as world number one Novak Djokovic destroyed his opponent as he targets a record seventh title.
US Open champion Naomi Osaka also stormed through, but world number one Simona Halep was lucky to stay alive, needing to dig deep and claw back from a set down before beating Kaia Kanepi 6-7 (2/7), 6-4, 6-2.
American giant Williams is bidding to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam crowns on her first return to Melbourne Park since winning in 2017 while eight weeks pregnant.
Now 37, she kept a low profile in the lead-up to the opening major of the year and came out of the blocks flying against fellow mum Tatjana Maria, pummelling her German opponent 6-0, 6-2.
Sporting a striking jade green jumpsuit and fine mesh stockings on Rod Laver Arena, the 16th seed wasted no time in getting out of the blistering Melbourne heat and said it was good to be back.
“The last time I was here I was pregnant and playing at the same time which is insane,” she said. “It’s weird walking back on by myself this time it feels good. I have so many memories from last time I was here.”
Bidding for an eighth Melbourne Park crown, few are betting against Williams despite her lowly seeding and she next faces Canadian Eugenie Bouchard who eased past China’s Peng Shuai.
Williams played at the mixed teams Hopman Cup in Perth this month, but her appearance on Tuesday was her first outing on tour since a meltdown in losing the US Open final to Osaka in September.
Japan’s Osaka, seeded four, wasted little time in dispatching Poland’s Magda Linette 6-4, 6-2 and will next play Tamara Zidansek of Slovakia.
Like Williams, Djokovic is also gunning for a slice of history as he looks to win a seventh title. Fellow six-time champion Roger Federer is aiming for the same.
The Serb blasted past American qualifier Mitchell Krueger 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 to set up a clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who he beat in Melbourne to win the first of his 14 Grand Slam crowns back in 2008.
Fourth seed Alexander Zverev, who is looking to win his first Slam title and establish himself as a serious threat to Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal, cruised past Aljaz Bedene 6-4, 6-1, 6-4. But eighth seed Kei Nishikori, who won in Brisbane last week, had a lucky escape. Among the women, sixth seed Elina Svitolina easily progressed, as did Williams’ sister Venus, who incredibly played her first Grand Slam tournament 22 years ago. But two-time champion Victoria Azarenka was bundled out, along with 10th seed Darya Kasatkina.