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Serena not perfect, still cruises

MELBOURNE, Australia — For the first five games in the second set, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis in her first-round match at the Australian Open.

Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope, before Williams regained her composure to win 6-4, 6-3 Monday. The six-time Australian Open champion improved her impressive record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.

The No. 2-ranked Williams' priority here is an Open era-record 23rd major title. She's one win down — beating a player who was seeded 12th here last year and reached a career-high No. 7 ranking last February — and is targeting six more at Melbourne Park.

"She was just recently in the top 10. I knew it would be one of the toughest first-round matches I've ever played," Williams said.

In round two she'll meet Lucie Safarova, who beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.

Bencic got one service break in the first set but took only two points in the first three games on Williams' serve in the second.

Serving for the match at 6-4, 5-1, things changed. Williams finished her 2016 after the U.S. Open, resting injuries. And started 2017 with an error-prone loss in Auckland, New Zealand.

Williams served her second double-fault of the match to give Bencic a break-point chance, and Bencic converted it with a crosscourt winning forehand.

The Swiss teen held at love then faced a match point, when Williams double-faulted again. Williams, 35, made no mistake on her second match point and pumped her fist in celebration. She finished with 30 winners and 30 unforced errors, eight errors and four double faults.

Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta both had their Grand Slam breakthroughs last year, both prepared for the season's first major with title runs in Australia and both advanced with straight-set wins.

U.S. Open finalist Pliskova followed her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo.

The fifth-seeded Pliskova, who beat Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals before losing the final to Angelique Kerber, has never advanced past the third round at Melbourne Park.

Konta, who won the Sydney International title last week, had a tougher time in beating Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2 on Margaret Court Arena.

.FAST FACTS

Today's featured matches

Men: Novak Djokovic (2) vs. Fernando Verdasco; Gael Monfils (6) vs. Jiri Vesely; Grigor Dimitrov (15) vs. Christopher O'Connell; David Ferrer (21) vs. Omar Jasika

Women: Agnieszka Radwanska (3) vs. Tsvetana Pironkova; Timea Bacsinszky (12) vs. Camila Giorgi; Barbora Strycova (16) vs. Elizaveta Kulichkova

TV: 9 p.m., ESPN2

Serena not perfect, still cruises 01/16/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2017 10:42pm]
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