Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka made flying starts to their Australian Open campaigns.
The city’s mixed feelings about the tournament were evident in sparse crowds at Melbourne Park but that did not bother seven-time champion Williams or title favourite Osaka.
Wearing a striking one-legged catsuit that she later revealed was inspired by 1980s athletics star Florence Griffith Joyner, Williams brushed aside Germany’s Laura Siegemund 6-1 6-1 in just 56 minutes.
The 39-year-old made a nervous start to her 100th match at the tournament, dropping serve in the opening game, but won the next 10 to ease through to a second-round clash with Nina Stojanovic.
Williams had pulled out of last week’s warm-up event with a shoulder problem, and said: “I was happy just to get through it. I wasn’t sure how my serve would be after a little bit of that shoulder, but it’s feeling good, I’m feeling good.”
She rushed off court to watch another evergreen athlete, Tom Brady, win his seventh Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the age of 43.
“I just was watching as much as I could to see,” she said. “My only word is it’s unbelievable. I kept saying, ‘This is unbelievable, this is unreal’.”
It was a successful day for the Williams family, with Venus claiming her first victory at a grand slam since 2019.
The 40-year-old, who is playing in a record 88th grand slam main draw, defeated 35-year-old Kirsten Flipkens 7-5 6-2.
Like Williams, Osaka withdrew from last week’s warm-up event with a shoulder problem but she made it clear it was precautionary and was in fine fettle in a 6-1 6-2 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Pavlyuchenkova had reached the quarter-finals in three of the past four years but Osaka was simply far too sharp, winning the opening four games and barely putting a foot wrong.
On what appeared to be a tough draw, Osaka said: “It’s always really hard to play someone that good in the first round. I feel like it might have also helped in a way because I calmed my nerves because I felt like I couldn’t afford to be that nervous.”
The victory extended Osaka’s winning run, stretching back a year, to 15 matches, and she cited last year’s defeat by Coco Gauff in Melbourne as a turning point in her mental approach.
The third seed, who won her third slam title at the US Open last summer, said: “I think just after losing here to Coco, because she is sort of the person that I never wanted to lose to in this situation, just being the defending champion, losing to her in such a high-profile match, I think it really shocked me.
“I actually played a match in Fed Cup in Spain that I don’t know if a lot of people knew about (losing 6-0 6-3 to Sara Sorribes Tormo).
“There’s just a lot of stuff that happened there, surrounding that time, that it really made me think a lot about my life and what is the reason – am I playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it?”
French Open champion Iga Swiatek has been wrestling with the different pressures of being a grand slam winner but the Pole negotiated her first hurdle successfully, beating Arantxa Rus 6-1 6-3.
Three-time grand slam winner Angelique Kerber was a shock casualty though. The German, one of 72 players to endure a hard quarantine, lost the first nine games in a 6-0 6-4 defeat by Bernarda Pera.
There was a notable victory, meanwhile, for Canadian qualifier Rebecca Marino.
The 30-year-old was playing her first grand slam main draw match for eight years after stepping away from the sport in 2013 for mental health reasons, and her 6-0 7-6 (9) victory over Kimberly Birrell was her first at this level for a decade.
Marino said: “I feel a lot more confident in my playing ability and my mental strength and fortitude. I feel like I still have my big serve and my forehand but a lot of it was between my ears, just fighting for every point, having a confidence that I know I belong here again.”
It was also a good day for fellow Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who won her first game in 15 months.
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Andreescu suffered a knee injury just a month after winning the 2019 US Open and has only just got back on court, beating Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2 4-6 6-3.
She said: “Last night I did cry, and I’m not afraid to say that because everyone cries sometimes.
“But it’s a good release for me because in my head, all I was thinking about were the last 15 months and how tough they were, and they were tough for many reasons, Covid being one of them, and then my knee injury, being ready to play Indian Wells, Miami, and then Covid hitting. That wasn’t easy.”
World number two Simona Halep enjoyed a comfortable opening-round win, seeing off Lizette Cabrera.
Opening the evening session on the Rod Laver Arena, Halep put the 23-year-old to the sword, winning 6-2 6-1 in just 59 minutes.
The Romanian is eyeing her first title in Melbourne, having got to the final in 2018.