For all the talk of this year’s Australian Open being unlike any other, a Serena Williams masterclass helped to at least instill a small semblance of normality.
And, according to the 23-time major winner, her 55-minute 6-1 6-1 rout of unseeded Germany’s Laura Siegemund was partly motivated by wanting to hop off court and in front of a television.
Because, of course, she wanted to tune into America’s premier sporting event, the Super Bowl LV.
“It’s super-inspiring, at my ripe young age,” Williams said post-match of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ superstar quarterback Tom Brady, who is only four years her senior.
“This was a good start, definitely vintage Rena. It’s definitely good, I think I’m pretty good at pacing myself in a grand slam.”
Williams has had a knack of coming slow out of the gates, particularly in the twilight of her career, and that certainly was the case early.
But unfortunately for her opponent, Williams’ shaky form – which saw her drop her opening service game through an opening double fault and some unforced errors – lasted a grand total of one game.
What came next was a scintillating display of her firepower-driven game, which was perhaps only eclipsed by her show-stopping one-legged catsuit.
By the time both players shook hands at the net, Williams struck 16 winners, won 60 per cent of receiving points and averaged an eye-watering first serve speed of 168 kilometres per hour.
“Last year was very crazy for the world and to be able to do what I love and be able to complete at a grand slam after the last 12 months makes me appreciate the moment even more,” Williams said.
The American, who continues on her pursuit of Margaret Court’s all-time grand slam record, next faces Romania’s Irina Begu.
Naomi Osaka races into the second round
“I’m just here to have fun.”
It’s always a bit unsettling hearing Naomi Osaka’s soft-spoken quips after unleashing a torrent of baseline winners and speedy first serves over the previous hour.
But that was her immediate reaction to a comprehensive 6-1 6-2 victory over Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova that silenced any doubters who looked too hard into her “niggling injuries” incurred last week.
The Japanese third seed was dialled in from the outset, racing out to an early 3-0 lead as her searing groundstrokes painted the lines.
But after racing away with the first set, Pavlyuchenkova certainly showed why she has made the quarter-finals at every grand slam, combatting her opponent’s heavy ballstriking with some powerful counters of her own.
However, after the Russian won an extraordinary quick-fire net exchange, Osaka sealed the last three games of the match with her biggest weapons – her forehand and first serve – helping her to close out the match.
On those aforementioned niggles, which prompted Osaka to pull out of the Gippsland Trophy lead-up event, she suggested it was nothing major.
“I think physically I feel like [everyone’s] body was shocked coming in and playing matches so suddenly after such a long break,” Osaka said.
“I’m just really happy to see people in the stands, it’s been really lonely in New York.”
US Open finalists find form after early wobbles
It wasn’t easy at first, but last year’s US Open men’s finalists Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev eventually found the temerity that propelled them to the grand finale at Flushing Meadows to win through the first round on Monday.
Thiem, the third seed and last year’s runner up, struggled to find his range early on his supersonic groundstrokes, giving world number 90 Mikhail Kukushkin an opening to take advantage in the first set.
But after the Kazakh squandered that chance and once the match hit the first set tiebreak, it was all one-way traffic for the Austrian.
Despite the 7-6(2) 6-2 6-3 scoreline, more than a few rallies between the pair will likely hit tomorrow’s highlights reel, including this lightning forehand winner from Thiem to close out an end-to-end rally.
After the match, Thiem said the quicker Melbourne Park courts would unlikely benefit his game, but hoped to warm to the conditions as the tournament progressed.
“I like to have time so the fast court takes it away a little bit from me, so that’s not perfect, but I have to get used to it anyway,” Thiem said.
“But that’s tennis, we have to get used to different conditions every year and almost every week, so this year is faster and I’m actually happy with how I adjusted to it.”
Meanwhile, the sixth seeded German Zverev took longer to kickstart his Australian Open campaign on Margaret Court Arena, losing the first and then stealing the second set at the death in a tiebreak.
Frustrated at his piling unforced errors, he eventually vented his frustration at his predicament in the first notable racquet smashing of the tournament.
But that seemed to steel his resolve, as Zverev stormed through the final two sets for a 6-7(8) 7-6(5) 6-3 6-2 victory.
“First round of a slam is never easy, my body was a bit fatigued, a bit tired – but this is a slam and you don’t have easy opponents. Sometimes you’ve just got to get through,” Zverev said post-match.
Attendance well down in a pandemic Open
Despite all the build-up and contention ahead of this year’s Australian Open, the crowds have not kept up with those of yesteryear.
Tournament organisers were already facing an uphill battle with crowds capped at 25,000 to 30,000 people every day.
But a combination of no ground passes, zoned tickets and schoolchildren back in the classroom has led to dismal crowds inside the showcourts.
There were already ominous signs when gates opened with spectators trickling into the grounds – a far cry from last year’s tournament, where fans entering from Garden Square queued for up to 150 metres.
And local photographers have captured the small showing from various angles, with numbers unlikely to pick up until the first weekend.
Venus Williams (USA) d. Kirsten Flipkens (BEL) 7-5 6-2
Bernarda Pera (USA) d.  Angelique Kerber (GER) 6-0 6-4
 Stan Wawrinka (SUI) d. Pedro Sousa (POR) 6-3 6-2 6-4
 Iga Swiatek (POL) d. Arantxa Rus (NED) 6-1 6-3
Emil Ruusuvuori (FIN) d.  Gael Monfils (FRA) 3-6 6-4 7-5 3-6 6-3