MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Same Grand Slam, same court, same result. Only the year was different for Novak Djokovic — and the amount of time he needed on the bright blue hard surface at Rod Laver Arena.
The Australian Open defending champion took his first step toward winning his third consecutive title at Melbourne Park — and fourth overall — with a 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 win over Paul-Henri Mathieu of France on Monday.
The match lasted 1 hour, 42 minutes, more than four hours faster than when the Serbian star was last on center court, his victory in last year’s final over Rafael Nadal in a 5-hour, 53-minute marathon.
The win ran Djokovic’s winning streak at Melbourne to 15 matches and his overall win-loss record to 33-5. Any wonder Djokovic calls the Australian Open, site of his first of five Grand Slams in 2008, his favorite major.
“It’s great to be back in Australia playing on this court,” Djokovic said.
On an opening day when Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams also easily won their first-round matches, Djokovic took his first step to becoming the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles in the Open era.
“Any achievement, especially if it’s part of history, would mean a lot to me,” Djokovic said. “I love this sport. This sport has been my life since I was 4 years old.”
Djokovic lost a match to Australia’s Bernard Tomic in the exhibition, mixed-team Hopman Cup tournament this month, but said his win over Mathieu, who reached a career-high No. 12 ranking in 2008, was a good steppingstone for his second-round match against American Ryan Harrison, a 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 winner over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia.
Sharapova finished her first match of the year in 55 minutes, cruising to a 6-0, 6-0 win over Olga Puchkova to start proceedings on center court without showing any signs of trouble with her sore right collarbone.
The No. 2-ranked Sharapova, who lost the final to Victoria Azarenka here last year before going on to win the French Open, faced only two break points in the match and she saved both of those in the first game with aces.
Sharapova withdrew from the Brisbane International earlier this month with a collarbone injury, saying she wanted to concentrate on being fit for Melbourne. She also skipped the Brisbane tournament last year before going on to reach the Australian Open final.
“After a couple of close games and a few break points, I certainly started to concentrate a bit better,” she said. “Overall, I was happy with the way I started, considering I didn’t play any matches coming in.”
Sharapova has a potential third-round match against Venus Williams, who needed just an hour for her opening 6-1, 6-0 win over Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan.
No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska won the last nine straight games in her opening 7-5, 6-0 win over Australian wild-card Bojana Bobusic 7-5, 6-0, and 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur beat Chang Kai-chen of Taiwan 7-6 (3), 6-3 to end a run of five losses on her home courts in Australia.
No. 6 Li Na, who lost the Australian Open final before winning the 2011 French Open, had a 6-1, 6-3 win over Sesil Karatantcheva of Kazakhstan, while No. 11 Marion Bartoli, No. 18 Julia Gorges of Germany and No. 27 Sorana Cirstea of Romania also advanced. Former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 6-2, 6-2.
Among the men, fourth-seeded David Ferrer defeated Olivier Rochus of Belgium 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych defeated Michael Russell 6-3, 7-5, 6-3; and No. 10 Nicolas Almagro of Spain beat American qualifier Steve Johnson 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2.
Eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia came back from two service breaks down in the second set and went on to beat local favorite Lleyton Hewitt 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-3. It was Hewitt’s 17th consecutive Australian Open, a tournament where he’s only advanced past the fourth round once — when he lost in the final to Marat Safin in 2005.
Also advancing were No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, No. 16 Kei Nishikori of Japan, No. 22 Fernando Verdasco of Spain, No. 26 Jurgen Melzer of Austria and No. 32 Julien Benneteau of France, who beat rising Bulgarian star Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
Williams took command of her match early with a steady stream of winners and powerful serves.
She skipped last year’s Australian Open due to illness and was warmly welcomed with applause as she entered the court. Williams had the biggest jump of any of the top players in 2012, moving from outside the top 100 to finish the year at No. 24.
“It’s hard to play the first match in a major, first thing of the year, and that can be a lot of pressure,” Williams said. “I did my best to just close it out.”
She’s pleased the progress she made last year after a seven-month layoff due to Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease that can cause fatigue,
“I’m not a patient person,” she said. “But I think what I have learned more than anything is for me to focus on the things I can accomplish and not to think about the things that I can’t do.”
Her younger sister, Serena, was sitting in the crowd with coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Serena is the favorite to win the Australian Open, heading into the tournament with 35 wins in her past 36 matches including titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open.
No. 3-ranked Serena Williams is in the top half of the draw with defending champion Azarenka, and the pair won’t start until Tuesday.
Second-seeded Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray, the two main threats to Djokovic with Rafael Nadal not playing due to a virus, also play their first-round matches Tuesday.
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