By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – It was very much business as usual for Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams at the Australian Open on Monday, even if allegations of widespread match-fixing cast a shadow over the opening day of the year’s first grand slam.
As the sun shone and more than 70,000 fans streamed through the gates at Melbourne Park, the great and the good of tennis officialdom filed into a room in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena to defend their record on battling corruption.
On the pristine blue showcourt only a few metres away, however, first Williams, then Djokovic gave notice that they had no intention of relinquishing lightly the dominance they exerted over tennis last year.
Williams had not completed a set since her dream of winning all four grand slams in one year was dashed in the U.S. Open semi-finals in September, yet she proved far too strong for Italian Camila Giorgi in their first-round match.
Dispelling any doubts about her fitness and form, the 34-year-old American moved freely on the troublesome knee that forced her to quit the Hopman Cup mid-match two weeks ago.
“It’s great. It was an hour and 43 minutes and I didn’t feel it at all,” the six-times Australian Open champion said after her 6-4 7-5 victory.
“Okay, I haven’t played in a long time, but I have been
playing for 30 years …”
Djokovic, who also won three grand slams last year, has been far more active than Williams in recent months but has not been beaten since August, a run that never looked like ending in his 115-minute clash with South Korean teenager Chung Hyeon.
The 28-year-old played very much the elder statesman after the 6-3 6-2 6-4 victory, complimenting his 19-year-old opponent on his game but advising him to come back and try again when he had more experience.
“A nice opening match with real Australian summer conditions,” said Djokovic after embarking on his quest to match Roy Emerson’s record of six Australian Open crowns.
“You try to stay composed, not get carried away by heat. Of course, there were some long exchanges that got both of us a little bit short on air.
“But I think physically I was really good on the court. I managed to play the best tennis when I needed to.”
Finding that extra gear when required is one of the factors that have helped Roger Federer to 17 grand slam singles titles but the Swiss barely needed to move out of first in his opening match against Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili.
The 34-year-old’s 6-2 6-1 6-2 victory set him on a path he hopes will end with a first title in one of the sport’s majors since he triumphed at Wimbledon in 2012.
His next hurdle is Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, who might as well have “tricky” appended to his name.
“Dolgopolov is a different player, a different level,” Federer said. “He’s got the fitness, the power, the speed, tennis IQ, all that. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Maria Sharapova was the other former champion in first-round action on Monday and she too eased past a younger challenger, beating Japan’s 21-year-old Nao Hibino 6-1 6-3.
With 128 players playing on the courts around Melbourne Park, there were bound to be upsets, on grounds of reputation if not current standing.
American Sloane Stephens, a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park three years ago, had a very bad day at the office and was sent packing by Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang.
Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki suffered a similar fate at the hands of Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva, while Sam Stosur, the former U.S. Open champion, made her now traditional early exit from her home grand slam.
Nearly all the big names were grilled about their reaction to the match-fixing report, which broke a couple of hours before play started and had echoes of the stories which created turmoil last year at the governing bodies of world soccer and athletics.
“I think it’s always a disappointment when stories come out like this just before the big event, because it does detract,” ATP tour chairman Chris Kermode said.
“(But) I think it will be seen that tennis is in a very, very good place …”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)