Not No. 1, but still defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic aced a stern test in his opener Tuesday in Melbourne, defeating former semifinalist Fernando “Hot Sauce” Verdasco 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-2 to move into the second round.
“It feels like home,” Djokovic said after the match. “It feels like coming back to the place that I had an incredible amount of beautiful memories.”
A key to catching the No. 1 Murray will be for Djokovic to end the fortnight with a seventh Australian Open title, which would break the record he shares with Roy Emerson.
“Of course, when I saw the draw I thought to myself, ‘This the only match I can focus on,’” said Djokovic, who almost lost to Verdasco in Doha earlier this month. “I managed to start really well with great intensity. The second set was a gamble — it was pretty close.”
Djokovic will next face Denis Istomin.
All the Top 10 seeds in action advanced relatively comfortably on Tuesday as Djokovic was joined in the second round by No. 3 Milos Raonic who rolled Dustin Brown 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; No. 6 Gael Monfils who breezed past Czech Jiri Vesely 6-2, 6-3, 6-2; No. 8 Dominic Thiem who needed four sets to subdue German Jan-Lennard Struff 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3; and No. 9 Rafa Nadal who stared down German Florian Mayer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
The former No. 1 Nadal, languishing at the No. 9 spot after a 2016 filled with injury and doubt, looked sharp in the high heat of Melbourne.
“The body is good,” Nadal said of his wrist, knees, hair, etc. “And that’s the key. If the body is not good, everything is more difficult. After Roland Garros everything was more difficult, but that’s in the past.”
Nadal will next face Marcos Baghdatis, who won when Mikhail Youzhny retired in the second set of their match.
“Never easy, the first round — there is always little bit more nerves at the beginning,” Nadal said. “I didn’t play against an easy opponent — the way that [Mayer] plays is not a conventional game. You know, he change a lot of the rhythm of the point, changing with a slice, then he hit a winner. Then he plays little bit slower ball. Is not easy to read his game, no?”
The No. 3-seeded threat Raonic was not distracted by the net-rushing shot-making antics of Brown, dropping 18 aces on the German and finishing with an impressive 46 winners to 25 unforced errors.
“The main point for at least myself was I really had to focus on myself,” said Raonic, who saved all three break points he faced. “He’s very capable of going very high up with his level, but that can also drop quite quickly. It’s about really providing a solid level for myself, and hopefully that weathers the storm.”
Raonic will next meet another serving machine, Gilles Muller, who defeated American Taylor Fritz in straight sets 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 6-3.
Lower-seeded winners on the day were No. 11 David Goffin edging former Wimbledon juniors champ Reilly Opelka in five sets, No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 18 Richard Gasquet, No. 22 Ivo Karlovic who outlasted Argentine Horacio Zeballos 22-20 in the fifth, No. 21 David Ferrer, No. 24 Alexander Zverev who came from 1-2 sets down to beat Robin Haase, No. 25 Gilles Simon, No. 30 Pablo Carreno, and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber.
At 22-20, Karlovic’s win over Zeballos was the longest fifth set in the history of the Australian Open, and was the longest match in games since the tiebreak was introduced at the tournament.
The lone upset on the day was provided by Italian Fabio Fognini, who iced No. 28 Feliciano Lopez 7-5, 6-3, 7-5.
Other unseeded winners of note into the second round Tuesday were Aussie Jordan Thompson over Joao Sousa in five, Alexandr Dolgopolov downing Borna Coric in four, Radek “The Worm” Stepanek who will next face the No. 11 seed Goffin, and American wildcard Frances Tiafoe topping Mikhail Kukushkin in four.
Wednesday in Melbourne look for highlights (17) Roger Federer vs. Noah Rubin, (1) Andy Murray vs. Andrey Rublev, (4) Stan Wawrinka vs. Steve Johnson, (31) Sam Querrey vs. Aussie teen Alex De Minaur, and (10) Tomas Berdych vs. Ryan Harrison.
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