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Australian Open: Serena, Osaka off to flying starts

Serena Williams played an unparalleled 100th match at the tournament and turned heads by sporting a vivid, one-legged catsuit*

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka wasted little time in breezing into the second round as the Australian Open began yesterday, three weeks later than originally scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan’s Osaka, the third seed, struck the first serve on Rod Laver Arena against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the women’s singles and strode to touch racquets with her opponent at the net just 68 minutes later after a 6-1, 6-2 victory.

“I was really nervous coming into this match. I just wanted to play well,” Osaka told a smattering of spectators on the socially-distanced centre court. She will face France’s Caroline Garcia in the second round.

Williams started her quest for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam title in style with a 6-1, 6-1 romp past Germany’s Laura Siegemund in 56 minutes.

“This was a good start, it was vintage Serena,” said the 39-year-old, playing an unparalleled 100th match at the tournament and turning heads by sporting a vivid, one-legged catsuit.

She will play Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic in the second round.

But 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber was the first significant casualty, the 23rd-seeded German losing 6-0, 6-4 to 63rd-ranked American Bernada Pera on Margaret Court Arena.

The tournament is known as the “Happy Slam” for its convivial atmosphere but the pandemic has overshadowed the event this year with fewer spectators, mandatory mask-wearing and fans unable to circulate freely around the grounds.

Australia has largely contained the virus, but officials are desperate to avoid further problems from Covid-19.

WAWRINKA THROUGH

Preparations had to be hastily rearranged as late as last Wednesday when a coronavirus case at a tournament hotel – the city’s first local infection in 28 days – forced a suspension of play.

Hundreds of players and officials were tested and all were negative.

While Kerber exited early, there were no problems for the 2014 men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, as he reached the second round for a 16th straight time with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win against Portugal’s Paulo Sousa.

Milos Raonic, the 14th seed from Canada also enjoyed serene progress through to the second round with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over Federico Coria of Argentina.

But Gael Monfils, the French 10th seed, is out after being stunned 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 by Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, the world number 86, in three hours and 46 minutes.

Raonic – who reached the semi-final at Melbourne Park in 2016 and the last eight a year ago, before losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic – next plays Corentin Moutet of France.

Men’s number one Djokovic, looking for a record-extending ninth Melbourne Park crown, begins his quest later Monday in the late night match on Rod Laver Arena against France’s Jeremy Chardy.

Women’s world number two Simona Halep, who has been battling a back injury which hampered her preparations, will open the evening session against Australian wild card Lizette Cabrera.

Top women’s seed Ashleigh Barty, defending champion Sofia Kenin and 20-time men’s singles Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal all to begin their challenge for this year’s Australian Open today.

E-LINE JUDGES

The days of tennis players arguing whether balls are in or out could be coming to a close, after the smooth introduction of electronic line judging yesterday.

Line calls have been at the centre of many a tennis conflagration, from John McEnroe’s “You cannot be serious” rant at Wimbledon in 1981 to Martina Hingis’s meltdown in the 1999 French Open final.

But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a major change, with human judges replaced by ball-tracking cameras to reduce the number of people on site at Melbourne Park.

Serena Williams and Osaka were among the players to give their seal of approval as the electronic system made its Grand Slam debut.

The cameras are set up along each line and automatically announce their decisions in real time, with a recorded human voice calling “out”, “fault” and “foot fault”.

“It’s interesting, It’s definitely different,” said 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams after powering into the second round.

The electronic calls feature pre-recorded voices of Australia’s front-line workers in the country’s pandemic response such as firefighters and other emergency response personnel.

‘NO ROOM FOR MISTAKES’

“I feel like for me, it saves me the trouble of attempting to challenge or thinking about did they call it correctly or not,” Osaka said. “It actually gets me really focused. I don’t mind it at all.

Thiem was another supporter, saying he found it easier with no scope for human error.

“No offense at all, but there are just no mistakes happening, and that’s really good in my opinion because if the electronic call’s out, the ball is out, so there’s no room for mistakes at all,” he said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

But veteran Venus Williams was more reticent about its long-term future, suggesting she preferred having humans on court.

Raonic also felt it deprived line judges from gaining big-match experience, which could impact grassroots tennis.

Line judges have become embroiled in some notorious incidents in tennis, including when Williams unleashed on an official during her 2009 US Open semi-final defeat to Kim Clijsters.

Djokovic was sensationally defaulted from last year’s US Open when he struck a loose ball that accidentally hit a lineswoman in the throat.*AFP

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