MELBOURNE, Australia — Li Na returned to the tournament that launched her onto the global stage last year, breezing to a 6-3, 6-1 win over Ksenia Pervak of Kazakhstan on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open.
Li was a trailblazer for China last year, reaching a Grand Slam singles final for the first time before losing to Kim Clijsters in the deciding match of the Australian Open. At the next major, she won the French Open to confirm her place as a genuine star in the world’s most populous nation.
“I hope I can go one better this year,” Li said of her confidence-boosting buildup that included match wins at the Hopman Cup and Sydney. “So I was happy what I’m doing … Yeah, I think I just continue.”
Fifth-seeded Li could meet Clijsters much early than the final this time, with the pair drawn into the same tough quarter along with No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki. Clijsters and Wozniacki were both due to play first-round matches later Monday.
Third-seeded Victoria Azarenka won 12 straight games to finish off Heather Watson 6-1, 6-0 in 67 minutes in the opening match on center court.
Azarenka, one of six women who can finish atop the rankings depending on results at Melbourne Park, is coming off a victory over Li in the Sydney International final last week.
“Well, the score is easy. To actually play the match, it’s never easy, especially for me coming here only Saturday,” she said of the win over Watson, adding she was unsettled because she had to get to Melbourne Park so early there was nowhere open to buy her morning coffee.
“First time I actually hit on center court was today in the morning,” she said.
The Sydney champion has gone on to reach the Australian Open final six times since 1997, winning twice. Li Na won in Sydney last year but lost the Australian Open final to Clijsters two weeks later.
After her win over Li in Sydney on Friday night, Azarenka is starting to gain a following in Melbourne’s Chinese community.
“After beating Li Na, a lot of Chinese people started recognizing me,” the 22-year-old from Belarus said about her experience at a Chinese restaurant. “That’s a plus.”
She’ll get more local attention in coming days, with a second-round match against Australian wild-card Casey Dellacqua, a 6-3, 6-2 winner over Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski.
For now though, the local attention is on 19-year-old Bernard Tomic, who rallied from two sets down to beat No. 22-seeded Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-2, 7-5. A five-set win over the 2009 semifinalist will no doubt give Tomic a confidence boost as he attempts to become the first Australian man to win the title since 1976.
“Today wasn’t fun, it was torture,” said Tomic, who reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year. “I don’t know how I found the energy to lift, how I did it, but I thank the crowd.”
Eighth-seeded Mardy Fish, the highest ranked of the U.S. men, had a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over Gilles Muller to advance, as did 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, No. 7 Tomas Berdych, No. 10 Nicolas Almagro, No. 18 Feliciano Lopez, No. 21 Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 30 Kevin Anderson.
Of the six women who can reach the top ranking, eighth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska has the biggest task, having to win the Australian title. She had a battle on her hands just to make the second round, fending off American Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-2 in a three-hour match on Show Court 2. Mattek-Sands hit 81 winners but also had 65 unforced errors.
Radwanska remained composed after trading breaks early in the third set, winning five of the last six games.
Other women advancing included No. 20 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, No. 26-seeded Anabel Medina of Spain and Eleni Daniilidou of Greece beat 41-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan 6-3, 6-2.
After an unusually cool buildup to the tournament, players were confronted with a strong breeze Monday and temperatures approaching 86 degrees.
In later matches, Clijsters was due to play Maria Joao Koehler of Portugal and Wozniacki, still searching for her first major title, faced Australia’s Anastasia Rodionova.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are on the same side of the draw for the first time since 2005.
The third-seeded Federer, a four-time Australian Open winner, was set to play on Rod Laver Arena in a Monday night match against Russian qualifier Alexander Kudryavtsev. Second-ranked Nadal had the last match on Hisense Arena — the second show court at Melbourne Park — against Russian Alex Kuznetsov.
Nadal criticized Federer over the weekend for letting other players “burn themselves” by complaining about tour conditions while maintaining his good reputation by rarely making negative comments about tennis.
After telling a pre-tournament news conference Sunday he had no intention of being the frontman for the players’ grievances because it has reflected badly on him in the past, Nadal was then critical of 16-time Grand Slam winner Federer in a Spanish-language interview.
Responding to the suggestion that Federer disliked players complaining openly about problems on the tour because it tarnished the image of tennis, Nadal said he took another view.
“No, I totally disagree,” he said in comments translated from Spanish, adding that Federer could look like a gentleman by saying nothing negative while the other players “can burn themselves.”