A self-admitted “rusty’’ Novak Djokovic began his bid for a fourth consecutive Australian Open title with a 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-1 win Monday over Lukas Lacko.
With his new coach and six-time Grand Slam singles champion Boris Becker watching him during a competitive match for the first time, Djokovic appeared tentative early against the Slovakian player, who often appeared content to keep the ball in play and wait for a Djokovic mistake.
But as the second-seeded Djokovic’s patience level began to drop, his skill level stepped up. He stayed on course for a fifth Australian title, hoping to be the first man to achieve that feat since the Open Era began in 1968.
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Djokovic entered the tournament on a 24-match winning streak, which followed his loss to Rafael Nadal in last year’s U.S. Open final. He’s now also on a 22-match winning streak at Melbourne Park.
“It is the first competitive match I’ve had this season, I haven’t played for five or six weeks,’’ Djokovic said. “I was a bit rusty on the court the first two sets. Afterwards it was all working well.’’
Serena in, Venus out
Top-seeded Serena Williams was next up on the night program at Rod Laver Arena, playing Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty. Her sister, Venus Williams, started well earlier Monday but unforced errors in two key periods in her match sent the seven-time major winner out of the tournament.
The elder Williams missed a break-point chance in the sixth game and then, after getting to 40-30 on serve in the ninth, inexplicably fired three consecutive double-faults to surrender a break and just about the set to No. 22-seeded Ekaterina Makarova. She took a 3-0 lead in the third before her unforced error toll climbed to 56 and Makarova won six of the next seven games for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win.
The 33-year-old Venus Williams, the second-oldest player in the tournament, has struggled with injuries and illness in recent seasons but reached the final of the WTA event at Auckland to start 2014 and came to Melbourne saying she was feeling better than she had in years. “The last 12 months I have had issues,’’ she said. “But this year I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.’’
Three-highly-ranked players were beaten in the first round, including 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and two Italians, No. 7 Sara Errani and No. 12 Roberta Vinci. Sixth-seeded Kvitova lost 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 to No. 88-ranked Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand, who was playing in just her second Grand Slam tournament.
Errani, the 2012 French Open finalist, was beaten 6-3, 6-2 by Julia Gorges of Germany and Vinci lost 6-4, 6-3 to Zheng Jie of China. Two-time finalist Li Na beat Ana Konjuh of Croatia — the youngest player in the tournament — 6-2, 6-0 to set up a second-round meeting against 16-year-old Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who beat 43-year-old Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm in three sets.
Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens was the first woman into the second round when she beat Britain’s Laura Robson 6-3, 6-0. No. 9 Angelique Kerber, 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic, No. 26 Lucie Safarova, No. 28 Flavia Pennetta, No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard and No. 31 Daniela Hantuchova also went through.
American Madison Keys wasted five match points in the second set and another in the third before beating Patricia Mayr-Achleitner of Austria 6-2, 6-7 (8), 9-7.
Eighth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, who won the recent Chennai Open, was the first man into the next round, advancing after just 15 games when Andrey Golubev retired with an injured left leg.
Two other players retired due to shoulder injuries, with Alex Bogomolov Jr. quitting after losing two sets to No. 15 Fabio Fognini and No. 12-seeded Tommy Haas pulling out when he was down a set and a break against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
Ferrer thrashes Gonzalez
Third-ranked David Ferrer opened with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Colombia’s Alejandro Gonzalez and No. 7 Tomas Berdych beat Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Ukraine 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz, a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, rallied to beat 19-year-old Australian wild card Jordan Thompson 1-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 in 3 hours, 16 minutes.
Other men advancing included No. 9 Richard Gasquet, No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, No. 17 Tommy Robredo, No. 19 Kevin Anderson, No. 23 Ernests Gulbis, No. 29 Jeremy Chardy, No. 32 Ivan Dodig and American Sam Querrey, who defeated Santiago Giraldo of Colombia, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3).
On Tuesday, in the tougher top half the men’s draw, top-seeded Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and Roger Federer will all be seen in action in Melbourne.