MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Serena Williams arrived ready to race at the Australian Open.
In a colorful one-legged catsuit she said was inspired by former Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner, Williams shook off a wobbly start — opening with a double-fault and dropping her first service game — to sweep 10 consecutive games and beat Laura Siegemund 6-1, 6-1 on the first day of the tournament.
The victory marked the start of Williams’ latest bid for a record-tying 24th major title. As she left the court she flexed her biceps, and later she donned a T-shirt that read “Unstoppable Queen.”
"Vintage ’Rena,” she said, describing her opening match and showing no signs of the right shoulder issue that led her to withdraw from the semifinals of a tuneup tournament last week.
Griffith Joyner was a sprinting and fashion icon in the 1980s, setting world record that still stand for the women's 100- and 200-meter sprints. She died in 1998, the same year Serena Williams contested her first Australian Open.
“Yeah, I was inspired by Flo Jo, who was a wonderful track athlete, amazing athlete when I was growing up,” Williams said. "Well, watching her fashion, just always changing, her outfits were always amazing.
"This year we thought of what can we do to keep elevating the Serena Williams on the court.”
It's off to a flyer.
She wasn't the first Williams to reach the second round, however. Her sister, Venus, won a Grand Slam match for the first time since 2019.
Playing in her 21st Australian Open, the elder Williams beat Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2. At 40, Venus is the oldest woman in this year’s draw and just the sixth player in her 40s to compete at the Australian Open.
“I like my job,” she said. “No matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high and give 100 million percent. And that’s what I do every single day, and that’s something I can be proud of.”
Three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, who won the title in Melbourne two years ago, played the opening match in Rod Laver Arena and beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 6-2.
The first tournament of this year’s Grand Slam season began after a three-week delay because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Physically I feel like everyone, their bodies are shocked, coming in and playing so suddenly after such a long break,” Osaka said. “I think we’re all getting used to it and everyone is just happy to be here.”
That includes the Williams sisters.
“Listen, this is amazing," Serena said. "Last year was very scary for the world. To be able to do what I love and be able to come out and compete . . . it makes me appreciate the moment even more.”
Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, made a successful return from a 15-month injury absence, serving herself out of a tough spot in the third set to beat Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Another Canadian on the comeback trail, Rebecca Marino, a former top-40 player competing in a Grand Slam event for the first time in eight years, beat wild-card entry Kimberly Birrell 6-0, 7-6 (9). Marino was sidelined by depression and a serious foot injury.
No. 23 Angelique Kerber, a three-time major champion and 2016 Australian Open winner, lost to American Bernarda Pera 6-0, 6-4.
U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem was a break down and saved set points before beating veteran Mikhail Kukushkin 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-3 in his first match at the tournament since losing last year's final to top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
No. 6 Alexander Zverev lost the first set in a tiebreaker, after saving four set points, then lost his temper in the second and belted his racket into the court. Letting off a little steam worked for the U.S. Open finalist, who recovered to beat No. 73-ranked Marcos Giron 6-7 (8), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-2.
Also advancing were No. 14 Milos Raonic, the first man to finish the first round, former champion Stan Wawrinka and Americans Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz.
No. 10-seeded Gael Monfils lost a marathon against Emil Ruusuvuori 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 and his fellow Frenchman, No. 25 Benoit Paire, also was beaten in the first round.
Serena Williams overpowered Siegemund, moved well and saved one of her best shots for the final game, racing forward to flip an off-balance backhand off her shoestrings for a cross-court winner.
For the past four years, Williams has been trying to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles. Williams’ most recent Grand Slam championship came at Melbourne in 2017.
“I've had a ton of pressure, and now I don't feel it anymore,” she told ESPN after her first-round win. "It's like a huge relief. I think I was just looking at it all the wrong way in the past, and I feel totally different about it now."
Up to 30,000 fans — about 50% of capacity — will be allowed on the tournament site, but seats were mostly empty for the early matches.
The usually packed walkways between courts also were relatively devoid of fans. Sanitizer stations had replaced the giant misting fans that used to keep fans cool on the grounds — not that they were needed on a cloudy, mild day.
On the hill overlooking the outer courts, there were giant white circles painted in the grass with a diameter of about eight feet, to ensure social-distancing for those resting, eating or watching on a big screen. Still, less than half were occupied by fans.
The players tended to focus only on the seats that were occupied.
“I'm just really happy to see people in the stands,” Osaka said.
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine contributed from Miami.
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