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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

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