MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic showed brief flashes of his best tennis as he began his bid for a third successive Australian Open title with a workmanlike 6-2 6-4 7-5 win over Paul-Henri Mathieu on Monday.
Perhaps keeping energy in reserve for the battles that lie ahead, the world number one only really roused himself when he faced three break points in the second set and again when the third set looked destined for a tiebreak.
On the first occasion the Serbian rustled up three aces to get himself out of trouble and on the second, he produced a couple of exceptional winners to break the Frenchman and set up victory in an hour and 42 minutes.
“I thought it was a really good match. We both served well in the second and third but I managed to hold on and play well when I needed to,” said the top seed, who will play American Ryan Harrison in the second round.
“It’s a two-week long event, it’s the first day, everybody’s obviously excited. For me, it was great to be back here.”
Maria Sharapova had earlier shown greater ruthlessness and swept aside any fears about her fitness with a 6-0 6-0 victory over Olga Puchkova.
Sharapova, the 2008 champion and runner up to Victoria Azarenka last year, was quickly joined in the second round by Venus Williams and Li Na after both the former losing finalists also enjoyed emphatic wins.
Men’s fifth seed Tomas Berdych progressed with a 6-3 7-5 6-3 win over American Michael Russell, while Asia’s hope Kei Nishikori brushed off his injury woes with a solid 6-7 6-3 6-1 6-3 win over Romania’s Victor Hanescu.
Despite the record temperatures which have gripped Australia for the last couple of weeks, the year’s first grand slam opened in mild conditions under overcast skies at Melbourne Park.
There was nothing mild about Sharapova’s demolition of Puchkova on Rod Laver Arena, however, and after saving a couple of break points in the opening game, she powered her way to victory over her compatriot in just 55 minutes.
Smashing winners at will, particularly off her forehand, the Russian showed no signs of the collar bone injury that saw her pull out of the Brisbane warm-up.
“I was happy with the way I started, considering I didn’t play any matches coming in,” the 25-year-old said.
“It was just one of those matches where I didn’t try to worry about her too much, I just tried to think about what I had to do.”
American Williams could meet Sharapova in the third round and proved she might be a handful for the second seed by winning 12 successive games to beat Kazakh Galina Voskoboeva 6-1 6-0.
Williams, playing in an eye-catching self-designed dress inspired by watercolours, lost her only Australian Open final to her sister Serena in 2003.
Serena, an odds-on favourite to clinch her sixth title this year, gets her campaign underway on Tuesday.
Fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska battled through a tricky first set and whipped through the second to beat Australian wildcard Bojana Bobusic 7-5 6-0 and extend her season-long winning streak to 10 matches.
China’s Li Na lost to Radwanska in Sydney last week to end her own winning streak at eight matches, but the former French Open champion continued to thrive under the guidance of her new coach with a 6-1 6-3 victory over Sesil Karatantcheva.
“He’s not only a teacher about tennis, not only about technique, he’s also helping me get my mind stronger on court,” Li said of Justine Henin’s former mentor Carlos Rodriguez.
Mental fragility has contributed to Sam Stosur’s poor previous showings at her home grand slam and the ninth seed again failed to convince in a 7-6 6-3 win over Chang Kai-chen of Taiwan.
“I desperately wanted to win out there today, but I didn’t necessarily feel it any more than my first rounds in grand slams,” said the Australian, who was knocked out in the first round last year and at her wram-ups in Brisbane and Sydney.
“I still think there is a load of room for improvement at the moment but it’s just the start of the tournament. Hopefully each match I can get a little bit better.”
Editing by John O'Brien