Novak Djokovic imperious as Covid-delayed Australian Open finally underway
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MELBOURNE - Novak Djokovic served a reminder of why he's the greatest Australian Open champion in history as he demolished France's Jeremy Chardy in straight sets in round one on Monday.
The eight-time winner's 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 win showed that normal service had resumed at Rod Laver Arena after the year's first Grand Slam was delayed three weeks over the coronavirus.
Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep also enjoyed convincing wins as the tournament finally got underway in front of limited crowds after a troubled build-up.
"It feels great, so great to see people back in the stadium," Djokovic said. "This is the most I've seen on a tennis court in 12 months."
Form and fitness are highly unpredictable at the Australian Open after the coronavirus wiped out five months of last season and badly disrupted preparations for the first Grand Slam of 2021.
But Djokovic left little doubt about his readiness to pursue a record-extending ninth title in Melbourne, breaking in the first game and completing the victory in 91 minutes.
The Australian Open was postponed to allow players to quarantine and play warm-up events, which were suspended for a day last week after a coronavirus case at a tournament hotel.
After the tortuous build-up, third seed Osaka struck the first serve on the centre court against Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and strode just 68 minutes later as a 6-1, 6-2 winner.
"I was really nervous coming into this match. I just wanted to play well," Osaka told a smattering of spectators on the socially-distanced court.
- 'Vintage Serena' -
Williams started her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in style with a 6-1, 6-1 romp past Germany's Laura Siegemund in 56 minutes.
"This was a good start, it was vintage Serena," said the 39-year-old, turning heads in a brightly coloured, one-legged catsuit.
Later, the 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu won an emotional first match after 15 months out against Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
The 20-year-old Canadian last played at the WTA Finals in October 2019 at Shenzen, China, where she suffered the knee injury that scuppered her entire 2020 season.
French Open champion Iga Swiatek, 19, beat Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-3 to reach the second round and continue her Grand Slam winning streak.
But Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open winner, was the first significant casualty of the women's championship when the 23rd-seeded German lost 6-0, 6-4 to 63rd-ranked American Bernarda Pera.
The tournament known as the "Happy Slam" for its relaxed atmosphere has taken on a different appearance this year with fewer spectators, mandatory mask-wearing and fans unable to circulate freely around the grounds.
Monday's total attendance was 17,922 -- a far cry from a year ago, when 64,387 came through the turnstiles on day one.
It's the fourth Grand Slam tournament affected by the coronavirus after last year's Wimbledon was cancelled, the French Open was postponed and the US Open was held behind closed doors.
- Racquet smash -
In the men's draw, US Open champion Dominic Thiem was made to work hard in the first set by Kazakh veteran Mikhail Kukushkin before coming through 7-6 (7/2), 6-2, 6-3.
"He's very experienced and the first set was super-challenging," said Thiem, beaten by Djokovic in five epic sets in the Australian Open final last year.
Sixth seed Alexander Zverev dropped a set and smashed a racquet before grinding to a 6-7 (8/10), 7-6 (7/5), 6-3, 6-2 win against American Marcos Giron.
"He played incredible," said the German, who lost to Thiem in the final in New York and the Melbourne semi-finals last year.
"He had me on the ropes, particularly in the second set tie-break."
Australia's Nick Kyrgios scored a point with a tweener as he beat Portuguese qualifier Frederico Ferreira Silva in straight sets.
Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, reached the second round for a 16th straight time with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win against Portugal's Paulo Sousa.
Milos Raonic, the 14th seed from Canada, also enjoyed serene progress through to the second round with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over Federico Coria of Argentina.
Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov got through in three sets against Croatia's Marin Clic, the 2014 US Open champion.
But Gael Monfils, the French 10th seed, was stunned 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 by Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, the world number 86, in three hours and 46 minutes.
Japan's Kei Nishikori also fell at the first hurdle with a straight-sets defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain.
Top women's seed Ashleigh Barty, defending champion Sofia Kenin and 20-time men's singles Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal all begin their challenge on Tuesday.