Alcaraz dominates on return to Australian Open as Swiatek shines

Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz hits a return against France’s Richard Gasquet during their men’s singles match on day three of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 16, 2024. AFP

Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek powered into the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday as Germany’s Alexander Zverev put aside legal worries at home to progress.

World number two Alcaraz was electric under the lights on Rod Laver Arena, demolishing French veteran Richard Gasquet 7-6 (7/5), 6-1, 6-2 in his first competitive match of the year.

The Spaniard, gunning to unseat 10-time champion Novak Djokovic from the world number one spot, was tested in a tight first set but then moved through the gears, showcasing his full range of shot-making.

Alcaraz, who will next face Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego, said it was good to be back in Melbourne, where he has not been beyond the third round in his previous two visits.

He missed last year’s tournament through injury.

“In the first set I struggled a little with his game,” he said. “He was playing great but I played better and better and at the end I reached quite a good level.”

The 20-year-old, clad in a sleeveless yellow T-shirt, admitted he sometimes tries to play “impossible shots”, including volleys and dropshots, to please his fans.

Swiatek run

Earlier, Swiatek survived a tough test against former Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin to progress.

The Polish world number one came through 7-6 (7/2), 6-2 against the player she beat to win her first Grand Slam title, at the French Open in 2020.

In-form Swiatek, 22, twice came back from a break down in a gruelling first set lasting 68 minutes but stepped on the gas in the second set, winning the final five games to finish with a flourish.

The four-time major winner, now on a 17-match winning streak, next faces unseeded American Danielle Collins, who beat former winner Angelique Kerber.

“It wasn’t the easiest first round. She played really well. I tried to find my rhythm, especially in the first set,” said the top seed, who owns three Roland Garros crowns and another at the US Open.

“I’m happy at the end of the set I could win the most important points.”

Zverev took to Margaret Court Arena in the evening against fellow German Dominik Koepfer under the shadow of a looming court case.

The world number six will go on trial at the end of May for allegedly assaulting his former girlfriend in 2020.

Zverev, who has strenuously denied the allegations, is accused of “physically abusing a woman and damaging her health during an argument”, according to the court.

The German, who beat Koepfer in four sets, said he sees no reason to step down as an ATP Tour player representative over the issue, believing players had confidence in him.

“I mean, I think so,” he said. “Nobody has said anything to me. I don’t have a reason not to believe that.”

Third seed Elena Rybakina, now firmly established in the women’s elite, overcame a slow start and saved three set points to beat former world number one Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (8/6), 6-4.

The 2022 Wimbledon champion, last year’s beaten finalist, will face unseeded Russian Anna Blinkova in the second round.

Former US Open champion Emma Raducanu said it was “amazing to be playing pain-free” after an impressive 6-3, 6-2 win over American Shelby Rogers.

The British player, 21, stunned the tennis world when she triumphed at Flushing Meadows in 2021 but her record since then is patchy and she has only just returned from a injury-enforced eight-month break.

“I had pain for so long,” said Raducanu, who faces China’s unseeded Wang Yafan in the second round. “I was playing since before the US swing in 2022 all the way before surgery.”

There were also wins for former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, fifth seed Jessica Pegula and American 27th seed Emma Navarro, fresh from her Hobart triumph.

On the men’s side, Danish eighth seed Holger Rune came through in four sets against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, while 11th seed Casper Ruud and Britain’s Cameron Norrie also progressed.

Veteran Grigor Dimitrov, who ended a six-year title drought in Brisbane this month, recovered from a rocky start to get the better of Marton Fucsovics in four sets.

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