Melbourne: Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka stormed through her grudge match with American Sloane Stephens on Tuesday to reach the second round at Melbourne Park.
Azarenka, ranked just 44 going into the season-opening Grand Slam after an injury-marred 2014, showed why she is regarded as the most dangerous unseeded player at the tournament as she downed Stephens 6-3, 6-2.
Azarenka will face 24-year-old Caroline Wozniacki. The eighth seed advanced in straight sets but American teenager Taylor Townsend made her work hard for a 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 victory over 92 minutes.
World number one Novak Djokovic got his quest for a fifth Australian Open title off to a winning start in straight sets on Tuesday.
The Serb top seed eliminated Slovenia`s Aljaz Bedene 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in 1hr 49min on Rod Laver Arena and will next play either Russian Andrey Kuznetsov or Spain`s Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Stan Wawrinka`s title defence got off to a flying start at the Australian Open on Tuesday, the Swiss easing past Turkish battler Marsel Ilhan 6-1 6-4 6-2 to reach the second round.
Though struggling to land his first serve, the fourth seed barely broke a sweat on a steamy day at Melbourne Park, blasting 34 winners to wrap up the match in less than one and a half hours at Rod Laver Arena.
Wawrinka raised a gasp from the crowd when he took a tumble on the court stretching for a volley late in the first set, but was untroubled thereafter and sealed the one-sided contest with a cross-court volley.
He will play the winner of Romanian qualifier Marius Copil and Spaniard Pablo Andujar in the next round.
Earlier, Azarenka, who controversially defeated Stephens in the 2013 semi-final with the help of a lengthy medical timeout, admitted before Tuesday`s match she was uncertain about the reception that awaited her.
But all was forgiven with the crowd cheering on a display that was reminiscent of the former world number one`s best before a string of injuries left her battling with depression.
Azarenka left no doubt she was chasing her third Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park after triumphing in 2012 and 2013.
"You`ve got to win seven matches to win a title and this was a great first round for me to really test my game," the 25-year-old said.
"I`m happy with what I did... Sloane`s a tricky opponent who has big weapons so I tried to stay aggressive and take every opportunity and control the game. I really had to stay focused and composed."
The service game of both players was rusty in the early exchanges and they exchanged breaks before Azarenka pulled ahead to take the first set in 29 minutes.
Stephens, who has struggled for Grand Slam success since her 2013 final four run, screamed with frustration as Azarenka took control in the second set, hitting pinpoint returns from the baseline and rushing the net with impunity.
The 21-year-old American, ranked 32 in the world, lifted her own game in response, desperately defending her serve in the second game of the set, which went to deuce seven times.
But it was a temporary reprieve and Azarenka broke her opponent at the next opportunity, overwhelming the American after 75 minutes.
Azarenka faces a potentially tricky second-round clash with either eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark or American Taylor Townsend.
Meanwhile, Kei Nishikori stormed into the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday with a 6-4 7-6(1) 6-2 demolition of hard-hitting Spaniard Nicolas Almagro.
The fifth seeded Japanese, rated a strong contender to capture his maiden grand slam this year after a breakout 2014, broke Almagro six times and sealed the match with a big serve in just over two hours.
The U.S. Open finalist`s victory avenged his loss to the Spaniard in the quarter-finals of his home tournament in Tokyo in 2013.
Nishikori will play the winner of Brazil`s Joao Souza and Croatian Ivan Dodig.
Last year`s Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia recovered from a slow start on Tuesday to edge her way into the second round at Melbourne Park.
The Slovakian, seeded 11th this year, beat Belgian veteran Kirsten Flipkens 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Cibulkova, who lost in straight sets to China`s Li Na in last year`s decider and has since failed to build on her Grand Slam run, faces Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in the second round. Fourth seed Petra Kvitova ground out a straight sets win over Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp on Tuesday to reach the Australian Open second round, admitting nerves affected her performance.
The Czech Wimbledon champion looked to be cruising to a easy victory but made hard work of the second set to eventually down Hogenkamp 6-1, 6-4.
Kvitova was sensationally dumped out of last year`s event in the opening round and said bad memories returned to haunt her as world number 138 Hogenkamp fought her way back into the match.
"I didn`t have nice memories from last year when I lost my first round, so I`m happy I won today," the 24-year-old said.
"I`d never played my opponent and I`m just pleased to win."
Kvitova said the pressure was on to perform after winning her second Wimbledon title last year but there were no easy victories in a Grand Slam.
"That`s why I have nerves, because I won Wimbledon," she said. "It`s never easy to be the favourite on the court with everyone expecting that you`re going to win easily."
She enjoyed a strong lead-up to the Melbourne tournament, winning the Sydney International, and expected the nerves to ease in the second round, when she will play either Donna Vedic of Croatia or Germany`s Mona Barthel.
"(Sydney) was geat fun," she said, "I`m very pleased with how I played, it`s helpful to have a few wins under your belt before the Grand Slam begins."
Earlier, Djokovic, who lost to eventual winner Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals of last year`s event, has been troubled by illness in the lead-up to the year`s first major tournament.
But after encountering early problems from the 116th-ranked Bedene he went on to secure passage into the next round.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic broke Bedene`s service four times and only had three break points against his serve in the match.
"For a first round performance it was pretty good, obviously I still need to work on a few things, I`m still developing my game," Djokovic said.
"Hopefully, it`s going to be better in the next one, but credit to Bedene for playing well today.
"I`ve seen him play only once before and on centre court he had nothing to lose and he has a very quick service motion so it was difficult to read his serve.
"If you have a good serve, you have a good chance to play a good match, so I am just glad to go through."
Also progressing was seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams. She beat Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor 6-2, 6-2.