Melbourne: Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams launched their Australian Open campaigns in style on Tuesday as Ivo Karlovic smashed a record 75 aces in an unprecedented, 84-game marathon.
Djokovic and Williams have both dropped to world number two and faced awkward oppositions, but they won in straight sets against Fernando Verdasco and Belinda Bencic respectively.
Former world number one Rafael Nadal also rolled into round two before Karlovic outlasted Horacio Zeballos in an epic that stretched for five hours, 15 minutes and ended 6-7 (6/8), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 22-20.
Karlovic beat Thomas Johansson's Australian Open record of 51 aces in a match, set in 2005, and 84 games was a new mark for the tournament in the tie-break era, edging the 83 in Andy Roddick's 2003 defeat of Younes El Aynaoui.
It was one of the longest matches in the tournament's history in terms of time, although still short of the five hours, 53 minutes played by Djokovic and Nadal in the 2012 men's final.
The denouement, when it finally came, was almost comical as an exhausted Karlovic chipped a hopeful lob over Zeballos, only for the Argentine to send a wayward forehand rocketing out of the court.
"This is what I will, after my career, remember. If it was easy match or I lost easy, I wouldn't remember. But this one definitely I will remember forever," said the Croat.
As the drama played out on Court 19, Djokovic gave further evidence of his return to form as he convincingly saw off Verdasco 6-1, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena.
Djokovic fell off the top of the rankings during a sudden slump last year but he showed signs of a revival by beating new world number one Andy Murray in this month's Doha final.
He fended off five match points against Verdasco in the Doha semis, and had to fight through a 71-minute second set against the Spanish left-hander for his win on Tuesday.
'Nothing to lose'
It was Djokovic's 15th straight win at the Australian Open as he seeks his third straight title and his seventh overall, which would break Roy Emerson's record set in the 1960s.
"I'm very pleased with the first round, considering I had one of the toughest first-round draws, definitely considering his form, how well he played against me in Doha," Djokovic said.
In afternoon play, Williams and Nadal made light of hot temperatures and doubts over their own form as they got off to sizzling starts.
Williams, back after an injury lay-off, demolished the dangerous Bencic 6-4, 6-3, while Nadal was also impressive in his 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Florian Mayer.
Williams has barely played since her shock defeat in the US Open semi-finals in September and she made, by one count, 88 unforced errors in her second-round loss to Madison Brengle at this month's Auckland Classic.
But she came through a tight first set against Bencic before dominating the second in what turned out to be an emphatic victory on the centre court.
The 35-year-old American, with a record 23rd major title in her sights, was watched from courtside by her new fiance, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
"Right now I've got nothing to lose. Every match, every tournament I'm playing for fun," she said.
Williams, who can break Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam titles if she wins in Melbourne for the seventh time, next faces Lucie Safarova, who saved nine match points before beating Yanina Wickmayer.
Men's world number three Milos Raonic, a semi-finalist last year, enjoyed an uncomplicated start to his campaign when he beat Germany's Dustin Brown 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
And German hotshot Alexander Zverev beat Robin Haase 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.
Injury-hit Nadal had a torrid 2016, failing to reach any of the Grand Slam quarter-finals, but he appeared rejuvenated under new coach and former world number one Carlos Moya.
In the final match on centre court, Polish third seed Agnieszka Radwanska beat Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, and will next play Croat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who beat Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang in three sets.
Radwanska, who lost in the final of the lead-up Sydney International, has consistently done well at Melbourne Park, making at least the quarter-finals in five of the previous six tournaments.
But she is yet to break through to win a title at any of the majors in 42 attempts spanning more than a decade.
"I have played her (Pironkova) many times and knew she was good," said the 27-year-old.
"I'm very happy that I was able to come back strongly in the third set and pleased to be into the next round."
An Australian semi-finalist last year, she is desperate to end her long wait and started methodically against Pironkova, who made the quarter-finals of the French Open last year, beating Radwanska along the way.
Nicknamed 'The Magician' for her shot-making, the Pole dug into her full box of tricks - including a brilliant, between-the-legs winner.
Radwanska worked an early break in the third game and won the first set in just 28 minutes with a trademark cross-court backhand earning her the final point.
But Pironkova, ranked 64, has plenty of experience and was playing her 45th consecutive Grand Slam - the second longest active streak.
She has never done well at Melbourne Park, failing to go beyond the second round in 11 previous appearances, but suddenly woke up as the second set got underway.
Pironkova won nine consecutive points on her way to going 2-0 in front, before Radwanska held serve in a long and crucial third game and then broke back to level the contest at 2-2.
Neither player could hold serve and they traded breaks before the Bulgarian finally claimed an error-strewn second set.
But Radwanska raised her aggression in the third set and when the Bulgarian double-faulted to hand her a break and 2-0 lead, she didn't look back, eventually winning the match with an ace.
Published Date: Jan 17, 2017 22:14 PM | Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 22:14 PM