For neither woman, Williams seeded No1 and Sharapova seeded No2, had played a competitive tour match in months. Williams had been absent since losing in the semis of the US Open and Sharapova, who played only three events after Wimbledon, last appeared in the Fed Cup final in mid November.
In fairness, both had shown up for some light-hearted sets in the IPTL, and Sharapova played an exhibition event in Los Angeles, but both she and Williams opened their Australian preparations with injury worries. The American did not complete a single match in the Hopman Cup, the Russian pulled out of her Brisbane defence before she even began. However both assured the waiting media this weekend that they were recovered and ready to play.
These were not empty promises.
First Williams, in the full 36-degree heat of the Rod Laver cauldron, and kitted out in a stunning sunshine-yellow two piece, played Italian Camila Giorgi, the highest ranked unseeded woman in the tournament—a tough opener.
Williams was, understandably, not in a hurry, but it was Giorgi who was slow to warm up. She conceded the first break to love in the third game, and another break for 1-4. Williams made a couple of unforced errors to hand one break back, but soon served it out, 6-4.
The second set would take rather longer than the 43-minute opener, and Giorgi survived five deuces and break points in the long first game to stay on parity until 5-5, but Williams’ serving had now warmed up nicely, and after breaking Giorgi in the 11th game, she served out the match to love with an ace, 7-5.
She afterwards affirmed: “[The knee] is great. It was an hour and 43 minutes and I didn’t feel it at all.
“I think I served well today. I think I got broken once, but other than that, I was able to stay focused on that part.”
Nine aces and nine points out of nine at the net contributed to some decent stats—and she lost only four points from 29 first serves. Giorgi will be less happy with 12 doubles faults amid a tally of unforced errors of 32.
Williams next plays Hsieh Su-Wei, ranked No90.
Sharapova, dressed in soft coral, had the benefit of more comfortable evening conditions, but that did not slow her down. She was detained for just 73 minutes by Nao Hibino, 6-1, 6-3, though it would have been even quicker had she not allowed the Japanese No56 to break her as she served for the match.
She was clearly delighted with this opening statement: “I haven’t played many matches in many weeks. No matter how much you train, it’s always different when you walk out onto the court… It’s definitely a relief to get that first one out of the way.”
With 11 aces among her 28 winners, this was a gauntlet-throwing performance after so long away from competition, and she’ll need every winner she can make with her nemesis Williams likely to face her in the quarter-finals.
Sharapova was asked about the success of a set of young Russians on the first day in Melbourne: “I definitely keep an eye on the younger generation. These are the girls that are going to follow us!”
Three of them, indeed, accounted for seeds: 21-year-old Margarita Gasparyan beat No17 Sara Errani, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1; 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina beat No27 Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 6-3, 6-3; and 19-year-old Elizaveta Kulichkova beat No22 Andrea Petkovic.
No16 seed Caroline Wozniacki continued her poor recent form in Australia by losing to No76 Yulia Putintseva, 1-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, from a set and a break up. It also completed a clean sweep of seeds from Williams’ eighth of the draw.
No24 seed Sloane Stephens was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Chinese qualifier Qiang Wang, and No26 seed, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, lost to Lauren Davis, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. Perhaps the most upsetting loss, for the Aussie faithful in particular, was that of Sam Stosur to Czech qualifier Kristyna Pliskova, 6-4, 7-6(6).
Agnieszka Radwanska, the WTA Finals champion and already a winner in Shenzhen this season, took only 80 minutes to beat Christina McHale, winning 10 points out of 13 at the net, and sealing the match with two aces, 6-2, 6-3.
She may find her next opponent a tougher nut to crack—former top-10 Canadian star, Eugenie Bouchard. Currently ranked 37 after a confidence-sapping 2015 that ended with her concussed by an accident at the US Open, Bouchard has started 2016 in altogether better shape, making a final run in Hobart, and beating Aleksandra Krunic, 6-3, 6-4, in 65 minutes.
No6 Petra Kvitova beat Thai qualifier Luksika Kumkhum, 6-3, 6-1, in 69 minutes. She next plays the in-form 21-year-old Australian Daria Gavrilova, ranked 39.
No10 seed Carla Suárez Navarro beat Viktorija Golubic, 7-5, 6-4, winning 10 from 14 net points in the process but making a worrying 37 errors to 14 winners. She next plays qualifier Maria Sakkari.
The teenage Swiss No12 seed Belinda Bencic bounced back from illness in Sydney last week to beat Alison Riske, 6-4, 6-3, in 68 minutes, and will face Timea Babos, who beat Briton Heather Watson in three tough sets. Watson had served for the match at 5-4 in the second set.
No13 seed Roberta Vinci beat Tamira Paszek, 6-4, 6-2, in 70 minutes, while No28 Kristina Mladenovic seed beat former finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, 6-3, 6-4. Fastest winner of the day, though, was No23 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova: A flat hour, 10 aces and 23 winners to four unforced errors took her past Daniela Hantuchova, 6-0, 6-2.
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