Injured parties return
Prior to the beginning of the Australian Open, the biggest question marks of all hung over Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, and their respective comebacks from injury.
With both men competing in their first tournament since Wimbledon, no one was quite sure how their bodies would hold up, or what playing level they would be able to attain after such long absences.
For Wawrinka, just participating in the tournament “was already a victory,” but on Tuesday both players proved they were not just in Melbourne to make up the numbers, recording impressive victories for contrasting reasons.
Giving a convincing impression of a six-time Australian Open champion, Djokovic cast aside all talk of the elbow issue that enforced his absence from the game by dismantling Donald Young 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
A model of consistency, efficiency and precision throughout the first two sets, Djokovic won 10 games in a row as he cruised to a 6-1, 5-0 lead. Although he was aided by a plethora of unforced errors from Young - the American would make 45 in all - Djokovic looked like he’d never been away. The much-vaunted powers of retrieval were still there, as was the devastating backhand.
New, though, was the service motion, engineered to reduce the strain on Djokovic’s elbow. While the Serbian described it as “a little up and down,” he faced just two break points throughout the match.
Djokovic did cool off a little in the third set, but the outcome was never in doubt, and he sank to his knees and affectionately patted the court upon sealing the victory.
“I played perfect tennis, like I never stopped,” said the 30-year-old on court after the match.
“It’s just great to be back on a tennis court. There’s no better place to start playing after six months of injuries than here in Australia"
Meanwhile, Wawrinka overcame a stiff challenge from Ricardas Berankis, winning 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(2) to move into the second round.
Having undergone knee surgery after Wimbledon - and sporting an impressive scar as a result - the Swiss had made a last minute decision to compete at the Australian Open.
It paid off, despite Wawrinka losing his serve at the first time of asking. However, his heavy hitting quickly returned as he muscled his way to a two-set lead.
But the 2014 champion understandably dipped in the third set as Berankis raised his game to force a fourth. There, the Lithuanian raced to a 2-0 lead, and Wawrinka looked to be in peril.
But what will perhaps please the Swiss most about this victory is the way he fought back, exhibiting admirable match toughness after such a long time out. He broke back for 2-3, and commanded the tie-break to secure a welcome victory.
"I'm really happy to get through a match like that, to fight the way I did today, to win the match like this," said Wawrinka.
"I won the first match. I'm going to focus on the tournament."
Halep denies Destanee
Simona Halep survived a scare against Australian wild card Destanee Aiava to reach the second round of the Australian Open for the first time since 2015.
Showcasing some powerful, backcourt hitting that belied her 17 years of age, Aiava stormed into a 5-2 lead to raise home hopes of a major upset. The world No.1 had to draw on all her experience in the eighth game, fending off two set points before embarking on a three-game run to draw level.
The first set was decided on a tie-break, and while Aiava had her chances, Halep’s greater consistency told.
The Romanian had to withstand another fright in the second set, this time after she rolled her ankle, but she soldiered on, breaking serve after a medical timeout and maintaining her lead to claim victory.
Around the Grounds
British No.1 Johanna Konta steamed into the second round, hitting 37 winners as she beat American Madison Brengle 6-3, 6-1 in 66 minutes.
Melbourne is certainly a city that agrees with Konta, who reached the semi-finals and quarter-finals here in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and on this form another deep run could be forthcoming.
Angelique Kerber continued her strong start to the season, extending her unbeaten run in 2018 to six matches after beating Anna-Lena Friedsam 6-0, 6-4.
Already a champion in Sydney this year, the German is approaching the form that saw her claim the Australian Open title in 2016, and her difficult 2017 campaign is fast becoming a distant memory.
“I’ve said goodbye to 2017 already,” said the No.21 seed. “I’m not looking back.”
Elsewhere in the women's singles draw, there were straight set wins for Karolina Pliskova, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Garcia.
Over in the men’s draw, No.22 seed Milos Raonic made his earliest exit from a Grand Slam since Roland Garros in 2011, losing to Lukas Lacko 7-6(5), 5-7, 4-6, 6-7(4). The Canadian, who withdrew from the US Open last year through injury, admitted afterward that he had “struggled physically, just with fitness.”
No.4 seed Alexander Zverev prevailed in a tough encounter against qualifier Thomas Fabbiano, who served for both the second and third sets. Zverev, though, found his best when it mattered, fending off the Italian to the tune of a 6-1, 7-6(5), 7-5 scoreline.
Elsewhere, 2009 semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco hit 41 winners to eliminate his countryman and No.20 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets, while No.7 seed David Goffin recovered from losing the first set against qualifier Matthias Bachinger to come through in four.