A RUSTY Novak Djokovic began his bid for a fourth-consecutive Australian Open title with a win over Lukas Lacko, while Serena Williams looked as polished as ever in beating Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty.
With his new coach and six-times Grand Slam singles champion Boris Becker watching him in an official match for the first time, Djokovic seemed tentative early against the Slovakian, who often appeared content just to keep the ball in play.
But, as the second-seed’s patience was tried, his skill level increased and he stayed on course for a fifth Australian title with a 6-5, 7-6 (2), 6-1 win. The Serb is hoping to be the first man to achieve that feat since the Open Era began in 1968.
Williams, the top seed and world No 1, won her 23rd consecutive match – including 18 at the end of last season and four last week in winning the Brisbane International – by beating Barty 6-2, 6-1 in 57 minutes.
“You have to be ready,” Williams said. “She had nothing to lose.”
That Brisbane title was the 58th of Williams’ career – she won 11 last year, including the French Open and US Open. A five-times winner of the Australian Open, she’s trying to end Victoria Azarenka’s two-year run as women’s champion at Melbourne Park.
Williams won 10 of 11 points at the net during the Barty match, but tried to dowse expectations that she’ll vacate her usual place at the baseline.
“In my mind I’ve been at the net [previously] but now I’m physically going there a little more,” Williams said. “No pressure. My next match I might stay at the baseline the whole time. It’s nothing I’m permanently working on. I’m just trying to have fun and do what I want to do out there.”
Djokovic also had a strong finish to 2013, and entered the tournament on a 24-match winning streak, which followed his loss to Rafael Nadal in last year’s US Open final. He’s now also on a 22-match winning streak at Melbourne Park. “It is the first competitive match I’ve had this season, I haven’t played for five or six weeks,” Djokovic said. “I was a bit rusty on the court the first two sets. Afterwards it was all working well.”
Serena’s sister Venus had earlier started well but unforced errors in two key phases of her match sent the seven-times major winner crashing out.
The elder Williams missed a break-point chance in the sixth game and then, after getting to 40-30 on serve in the ninth, fired three consecutive double-faults to surrender a break and just about the set to No. 22-seeded Ekaterina Makarova.
She took a 3-0 lead in the third before her unforced error toll climbed to 56 and Makarova won six of the next seven games for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Venus, 33, the second-oldest player in the tournament, has struggled with injuries and illness in recent seasons but reached the final of the WTA event at Auckland to start 2014 and came to Melbourne saying she was feeling better than she had in years. “The last 12 months I have had issues,” she said. “But this year I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.”
Three-highly-ranked players were beaten in the first round, including 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and two Italians, No 7 seed Sara Errani and No 12 seed Roberta Vinci. Kvitova, who was seeded sixth lost 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 to No. 88-ranked Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand, who was playing in just her second Grand Slam.
Winners in the women’s first round included two-times Australian Open finalist Li Na, world No 9 Angelique Kerber, 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur, No 14 Ana Ivanovic, 26th seed Lucie Safarova, No 28 Flavia Pennetta, No 30 Eugenie Bouchard and No 31 Daniela Hantuchova.
Men’s eighth-seed Stanislas Wawrinka, who won the recent Chennai Open, was the first to reach the second round, advancing after just 15 games, when Andrey Golubev retired with an injured left leg.
Other winners were third-ranked David Ferrer, No 7 Tomas Berdych, No 9 Richard Gasquet, No 14 Mikhail Youzhny, No 17 Tommy Robredo, No 19 Kevin Anderson, No 23 Ernests Gulbis, No. 29 Jeremy Chardy, No 32 Ivan Dodig and American Sam Querrey.