Novak Djokovic returned to the Australian Open with a thumping 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 victory against Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena in the first round of Australian Open – nearly 700 days since winning the title for a ninth time.

Welcomed like a returning hero by the evening crowd, many sporting Serbian flags, the 35-year-old Djokovic was imperious throughout and rattled off the third set for the loss of four points to seal an 83rd win at the tournament.

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” fourth seed Djokovic said on court. “Thanks for the welcome and the reception that I could only dream of. Very happy to be back.”

Meanwhile, 12th seed Alexander Zverev of Germany had a huge scare against Peruvian world number 103 Juan Pablo Varillas but steadied himself to win a four-hour dogfight 4-6, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-4 at the Margaret Court Arena.

It was Zverev’s first win since tearing ankle ligaments in last year’s French Open semi-final against Rafa Nadal.

However, top 10 seeds Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz eased into the second round earlier on Tuesday with Russian Rublev beating former finalist Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 as temperatures nudged 36 degrees Celsius.

In the women’s competition, Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur too had to earn a hard fought victory as she overcame the challenge from Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia with a 7-6 (8), 4-6, 6-1 result. “I told myself to be the No 2 in the world and just win this match,” she said, with a smile, after the match.

She saved three set points in the opening-set tie-break and after dropping the second, it was only once she had got the break for 2-1 in the decider that she found her usual rhythm, pulling away for victory over a tenacious opponent.

The runner-up at Wimbledon and the US Open last year, Jabeur sported some worrying-looking strapping around her right knee and though it did not seem to affect her movement, the tenacity of Zidansek certainly did. The Slovenian is ranked 98 in the world but she was good enough to reach the semi-finals at the French Open two years ago and had beaten Jabeur in their most recent battle, in 2019.

A lot has changed in the few years since, though. Jabeur has transformed herself from a player with abundant talent but prone to inconsistency into a regular contender for the biggest titles. Only Elena Rybakina, playing inspired tennis at Wimbledon, and the world No 1, Iga Swiatek, doing likewise at the US Open, prevented her from winning a first slam title last year. If she is to win this, she will need to improve but the good thing is she got the job done, which gives her time to find her form.

Jabeur dropped serve in the opening game. She broke back after a long second game and despite not playing her best, she still managed to forge a 4-1 lead. It always looked fragile, though, and Zidansek hit back to level at 4-4. The Slovenian led 6-4 in the tie-break but Jabeur saved both set points, the second with a beautiful drop shot, backhand volley combination. She needed a forehand winner to save a third set point at 7-8 before going on to snatch the set.

Zidansek was not going away and she broke in the eighth game of the second and forced a deciding set. But Jabeur found her game in time, breaking for 2-1 and twice more to put a bit of gloss on the score.

“It was a very tough match,” Jabeur said. “I wasn’t playing very well and she was putting me under a lot of pressure. I was getting frustrated but I’m glad I let it out in the second set. It’s a tough sport. You don’t want to go three sets.”

Meanwhile, the fifth ranked Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka cruised to a 6-1, 6-4 win over Tereza Martincova of the Czech Republic. “I have to work on my mindset and stay calm and not get too upset when I make mistakes,” she said. “I really believe this is the only thing missing in my game.”

The fourth seed, Caroline Garcia, who won the season-ending WTA Finals last year, was equally impressive as she beat the Canadian qualifier Katherine Sebov 6-3, 6-0.

Garcia will face another Canadian in 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, who beat Alize Cornet 7-5, 6-2, her first win in the main draw at Melbourne Park.

But Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, a two-time slam champion, is out, beaten 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1 by Elise Mertens, the No 26 seed.


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