World number five Venus Williams and US Open champion Sloane Stephens were high-profile casualties on day one of the Australian Open Monday, but Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko survived.
Williams, who lost in the final to sister Serena last year, was stunned by Swiss star Belinda Bencic, fresh from winning the Hopman Cup with Roger Federer.
The seven-time Grand Slam winner, in her 77th major, struggled against a player who had never before beaten her to go down 6-3, 7-5 and deprive the tournament of one of its biggest names.
It is the first time since 1997 that there will be neither of the Williams sisters in the second round, with Serena not playing after giving birth to her first child.
“I would like to have played someone easier,” said Bencic.
“When I was a little girl watching on TV I would never imagine I would play them (the Williams).”
Also out of the opening Grand Slam of the year is American big-hitter CoCo Vandeweghe, a semi-finalist last year at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadow.
She slumped out to Hungary’s Timea Babos 7-6 (7/4), 6-2.
Stephens’ poor run since winning at Flushing Meadows in September continued, with the 13th seed crashing out to Chinese number two Zhang Shuai, who made the last eight two years ago.
The frustrated American put in an error-strewn performance on an overcast and windy Melbourne day and has now not won in seven matches.
“I’m not going to get too down,” said Stephens after her 2-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-2 defeat.
“I’m just going to stay positive and keep working to get back in the best shape and best place possible to do well for my next tournaments.”
There was better luck for Ostapenko, who saw off Francesca Schiavone 6-1, 6-4.
The seventh seed raced through the first set on Rod Laver Arena against the veteran Italian who was bizarrely wearing a back brace on the outside of her shirt.
She was 4-1 down in the second before knuckling down to race home and a second round clash with China’s Duan Yingying.
“I knew before the match that it’s not going to be easy. She’s very experienced player and she’s very long time on tour,” said the Latvian.
“I knew I had to play really aggressive and stay very consistent.”
Also into the next round with a straight sets win was German 12th seed Julia Goerges, who won the lead-up Auckland Classic and is now on a 15-match unbeaten streak having ended 2017 with victories at Moscow and Zhuhai.
World number two Caroline Wozniacki, who lost to Goerges in that New Zealand decider, plays later Monday, along with men’s top seed Rafael Nadal.
Sixteen-time Grand Slam champion Nadal insists he is feeling fine despite struggling with a knee injury and ready to go deep at an event that he has only won once — in 2009 — among his string of major triumphs.
This is despite a chequered lead-up that prevented him playing a warm-up tournament for the first time ever ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the year.
“It’s a new situation for me. But I feel good,” said the 31-year-old, who first played at Melbourne Park in 2004.
Nadal, who faces the Dominican Republic’s Victor Estrella Burgos in a night match on Rod Laver Arena, lost an epic Australian Open final last year to Roger Federer, who gets his campaign under way on Tuesday.
Fellow multiple Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic, seeded 14, also starts on Tuesday, along with former world number one Maria Sharapova and top seed Simona Halep.
Among men safely through to the next round are 31st seed Pablo Cuevas and Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov.
On the eve of the 2018 Australian Open, we take a look at Seven Deadly Stats from the women’s draw.
1 – Simona Halep is the No. 1 seed at a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.
2 – of Maria Sharapova’s three first round Grand Slam losses came at the Australian Open (in 2003 and 2010). She is 47-3 in the opening rounds at the majors.
5 – players can challenge Halep for the No. 1 ranking this fortnight: Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko and Karolina Pliskova.
6 – years since Wozniacki was last ranked No. 1 in the world. She must reach at least the semi-finals to have a chance of replacing Halep at the top of the rankings after the Australian Open. It would be the longest gap between stints at No. 1 since the computer rankings were introduced in 1975.
9 – of this year’s top-16 seeds in the women’s draw did not feature in this seeding bracket in 2017.
47 – Agnieszka Radwanska assumes the title of having the longest active consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance streak with 47 straight participations (including this year’s Australian Open). Jelena Jankovic saw her streak come to a halt at 56 due to her withdrawal from the 2018 Australian Open due to a back injury.
77 – Venus Williams will be appearing in her 77th Grand Slam main draw this fortnight, the most in the Open Era
Novak Djokovic admits his elbow is not 100 per cent healed but he commences his Australian Open campaign on Tuesday with a new service motion that puts less pressure on his injured joint and a positive outlook irrespective of his lower ranking or physical condition.
The six-time Australian Open champion has been hitting the practice courts at Melbourne Park — wearing a flesh-coloured sleeve to protect his elbow — joined by his coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek (see video above).
During his six-month hiatus due to injury, Djokovic worked with his team to tweak the way he hits the serve and while he is yet to test it in an official match capacity, he believes it makes him more efficient and it places less load on his elbow.
“It was obviously the part of my game that I had to address because of the elbow issues. I’ve worked on it for last couple months with Radek and Andre,” Djokovic told reporters in Melbourne on Saturday.
“Obviously the beginning, even though the service motion comparing to the old ones, it’s not entirely different, but at the beginning even those small tweaks and changes have made a lot of difference mentally. I needed time to kind of get used to that change, understand whether that’s good or not good for me.
“So far it’s been working really well. I had only Kooyong match where I could really try it out (defeated Dominic Thiem). I had a lot of practice sets. I’m happy with the new motion, you know, new service motion. I don’t want to say ‘new serve’, but new service motion.
“Some corrections, I guess, some improvements to the technique, which I think are allowing me to be more efficient with the serve, but also allowing me to release the load from the elbow, which is obviously something that I have to do because I have that injury.”
Djokovic was not sure he would be competing at the Australian Open but his doctors assured him he wouldn’t be causing any extra damage to his elbow by playing. They will be assessing further options for his injury following the opening Grand Slam of the season.
When asked if surgery remains an option, he said: “There are some other options, long-term options, that I will obviously revisit and address post-tournament. Right now I should focus on this.”
Djokovic is seeded 14 this fortnight as his ranking took a hit during his absence. The 30-year-old Serb, who begins his quest for a record-extending seventh Australian crown against American Donald Young, admits his approach to this Slam could be different with him being the hunter rather than the hunted.
“I still know what I’m capable of, and I believe in my own abilities to win against the best players in the world. I know that if I get myself to desired level of performance — mental and physical — that I can actually have a good chance to go far in the tournament,” said Djokovic.
“Now, whether my approach is different to this year’s Australian Open to other previous years, probably yes. It’s different circumstances. But it is exciting. Honestly, it’s a good place to be.”
DJOKOVIC’S POSSIBLE AUSTRALIAN OPEN PATH
R1 Donald Young
R2 Gael Monfils/Jaume Munar
R3 Albert Ramos-Vinolas (ESP x21)
R4 Alexander Zverev (GER x4)
QF Dominic Thiem (AUT x5)/Stan Wawrinka (SUI x9)/Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP x20)
SF Roger Federer (SUI x2)/David Goffin (BEL x7)/Juan Martin del Potro (ARG x12)
F Rafael Nadal (ESP x1)/Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x3)