Serena Williams wins - then bangs the drum for equality

Serena Williams prepares to serve during her victory over Switzerland's Belinda Bencic in the first round match of the Australian Open. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP
Serena Williams prepares to serve during her victory over Switzerland's Belinda Bencic in the first round match of the Australian Open. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP
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Serena Williams is choosing her moments carefully. Deep contemplation on her recent engagement, she says, can wait until after the Australian Open. Equality? The time to make a statement is now.

After starting her quest for a record 23rd Grand Slam title with a 6-4, 6-3 first-round win over Belinda Bencic on Tuesday, 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, near the end of the federal holiday in honour of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“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 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, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis. Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy lay-off, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope.

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.

Rafael 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 when he was beaten in the first round by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.

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. 18 Richard Gasquet, No. 24 Alexander Zverev, No. 25 Gilles Simon, and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber.

US Open finalist Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo.

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-sets wins.

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.