Novak Djokovic began his quest for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title with a comfortable 6-3 6-4 6-0 victory over Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena.
There had been serious concerns over Djokovic’s fitness with his upper left leg heavily strapped during practice, but the former world No 1 allayed any fears by dismantling the world No 75.
Djokovic was given a hero’s welcome on Rod Laver Arena which was full of Serbian flags in support of the nine-time champion, who was playing his first match of the 2023 tournament at Melbourne Park following last year’s vaccine-related deportation.
“Unbelievable atmosphere, thank you so much for staying,” Djokovic said to the crowd. “Thank you for giving me such a welcoming reception I could only dream of.
“I feel very happy that I’m back in Australia and back on this court. I couldn’t ask for a better start to the tournament.”
The main question mark ahead of the match had been about the condition of Djokovic’s left hamstring, which he hurt en route to his victory in Adelaide and which has continued to cause him trouble.
It was heavily strapped, and there were a few moments where he looked uncomfortable, but he moved well and struck the ball with his customary crispness from the baseline, ending the contest with 41 winners.
Carballes Baena, ranked 75, offered plenty of resistance in the first two sets, with Djokovic having to recover from 0-40 at 2-2. But that proved to be the only real moment where he was on the back foot and he raced through the third set, losing only four points.
Alexander Zverev survived a scare against lucky loser Juan Pablo Varillas to prevail 4-6 6-1 5-7 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 in over four hours.
The German earned his first Grand Slam win since he was forced to retire in the French Open semi-final against Rafael Nadal after rolling his ankle and tearing ligaments.
“I am extremely happy because I missed this over the past seven months,” Zverev said.
“This match alone pays off for all the hard work and suffering that I have had. To win in front of this kind of crowd again… I can’t wait for the rest of the tournament. No matter what happens from now, the tournament is already a success for me.”
Taylor Fritz fired 32 aces in his 6-4 6-2 4-6 7-5 victory over Nikoloz Basilashvili to move through, but the American’s next big challenge is persuading his girlfriend to let him to play video games.
“I’m gonna get lots of hours of recovery after the match, make sure I’m feeling good, maybe get some dinner and possibly play some video games if my girlfriend lets me,” Fritz said with a smile.
World No 6 Andrey Rublev enjoyed a 6-3 6-4 6-2 win over 2020 finalist Dominic Thiem in just over two hours to earn his first victory of the season.
“I know that he’s going through not easy times. I wish him to come back to the level he can be at as fast as possible,” Rublev said of US Open champion Thiem, who is coming back from a debilitating wrist injury.
In a rematch of the 2021 quarter-final, Grigor Dimitrov beat Aslan Karatsev 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 6-2 in a first-round battle between the former semi-finalists.
Danish teenager Holger Rune, the ninth seed, breezed through with a 6-2 6-3 6-4 win over Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic.
Australia’s Alex de Minaur eased into the next round with a 6-2 6-2 6-3 win over Taiwan’s Hsu Yu-hsiou.
“I know what is asked from me,” the 23-year-old said. “I know that at times I’ve got some pressure on myself to deliver. I take it with pride ultimately.”
Kyrgios targets Roland Garros return
Nick Kyrgios was forced to pull out of his home Gran Slam due to a knee injury but the Australian said he hopes to play at the French Open for the first time since 2017, with an eye on a return to the Tour in March at Indian Wells.
“I’ll definitely have ‘French Open’ circled on my calendar,” Kyrgios told The Age.
“I think I’m as motivated as ever. I was ready for the AO (Australian Open). I’m just going to use this as fuel.”
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