SERENA SERENADES SWISS BENCIC
MELBOURNE: Two matches in four months, a dodgy knee and a sweltering day had doubts swirling around Serena Williams as she took centre court for her firstround match against talented Swiss Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open yesterday.
It took 79 minutes for the 35-year-old American to bat them all away, however, an emphatic 6-4, 6-3 win at Rod Laver Arena providing a near-perfect launch of her bid to clinch a record 23rd Grand Slam title in the professional era.
Fiancé Alexis Ohanian, a social media entrepreneur, was a spectator in the crowd but the wedding plans remain on hold for at least another match, and much longer if the American great has her way at Melbourne Park.
“I just kept saying that (in) February I’ll start looking at the bigger picture of my life,” Williams, seeded second, said. “But right now I’m just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about.”
Former world No 7 Bencic, who is expected to have a big future in the game, was supposed to give her opponent something to think about. She had upset Williams in Toronto in 2015 and became the youngest player to do so in a completed match since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova felled her at the 2004 WTA Finals.
Bencic trailed 3-1 within minutes of a match that started in oppressive heat yesterday but battled back to 4-4 in the first set before Williams changed the game with a single shot.
Pumping her creaky knees to lunge for a wide backhand, Williams sliced an improbable crosscourt winner past the net-bound Bencic to hold serve. It was a deflating moment for the 19-yearold, who had been on a roll, and she duly dropped the set when Williams fired a return that all but punched a hole through her racket.
From there, Williams roared to 5-0 in the second set with only a late slump stalling her victory march. Bencic rallied to break Williams a second time and the American double-faulted on her first match point, drawing gasps from the crowd.
But Williams made no mistake with her second, closing it out with a thumping forehand volley to set up a clash against Czech Lucie Safarova.
Safarova, a former world No5 and French Open finalist, might present a tough test in the second round but after the way she brushed Bencic aside few would bet against Williams ploughing on to the second week.
Williams revealed in her postmatch media conference that she had been devastated to learn of British singer George Michael’s death in December.
It prompted a reporter to ask which was her favourite song from the former pop idol.
Fittingly, she responded: “Faith.”
Meanwhile, champion and top seed Angelique Kerber will be eager to improve on her shaky start to the Australian Open when she takes on German compatriot Carina Witthoeft in the second round today. The 28-year-old Kerber, who is defending a Grand Slam title for the first time, was made to work harder and longer than she would have liked in her 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win over Lesia Tsurenko on Monday. – Reuters
STRETCHING: Serena Williams of the US in action against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland during round one of the women’s singles of the Australian Open Grand Slam tournament in Melbourne, Australia, yesterday. PICTURE: EPA