ADELAIDE, Australia (AFP) — Novak Djokovic swept to victory in his first singles match on Australian soil since being deported a year ago, crushing Frenchman Constant Lestienne at the Adelaide International on Tuesday to kickstart his bid for another Grand Slam title.
The Serbian superstar was given a warm welcome when he played a losing doubles clash on Monday and received similar treatment on a packed center court.
He won comfortably 6-3, 6-2 in 74 minutes, breaking once in the first set and twice in the second.
“For the first match I can’t complain, I played very well,” Djokovic said.
“I thought the first probably six games were very competitive.”
“I’ve never faced him before today’s match. He’s a counter-puncher. He doesn’t make too many mistakes and he kind of absorbs the pace from his opponent, kind of tricky serve, hits his spots.”
“But once I made that break at 3-2 first set I felt like I stepped it up one or two levels and played really good tennis the rest of the match.”
It was his first singles clash in the country after being kicked out before the 2022 Australian Open for not being vaccinated for Covid-19.
Djokovic was subsequently barred from re-entering for three years.
The ban was lifted in November, allowing him a chance to win an unprecedented 10th Australian Open crown at Melbourne Park later this month.
Daniil Medvedev, who lost to Djokovic in the 2021 Australian Open final, also tasted victory, saving an incredible nine set points on his way to a 7-6 (8/6), 2-1 win over Italian Lorenzo Sonego who retired hurt.
Top seed Djokovic served to love to open his account and it went with serve until he pounced in game six, working two break points with Lestienne netting a forehand to go 4-2 behind.
He calmly closed out the set in 38 minutes and took full control in the second, quickly breaking twice to move 3-0 clear before cruising home.
Djokovic will play another Frenchman Quentin Halys next for a place in the quarterfinals of a tournament he won in 2007.
Before his haul of 21 major trophies, the then 19-year-old Serb beat Chris Guccione in the final ahead of his breakthrough triumph over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open a year later.
Former world No. 1 Medvedev, seeded two, also progressed but was given a tough workout by Sonego, a champion in Metz last year.
They played a cracking 80-minute first set in their maiden meeting.
Sonego fended off three break points, but the tables were turned in game nine with the Russian forced to save six set points after a series of uncharacteristic unforced errors.
He saved another three set points in the next game before prevailing in the tiebreak.
They exchanged breaks in the second set before Sonego retired after treatment on his right arm.
Medvedev, the 2021 US Open champion, is also warming up for another tilt at the Australian Open after suffering a demoralizing five-set loss from two sets up against Rafael Nadal in the final last year when Djokovic was absent.
“I didn’t know it was nine set points, that’s crazy and probably the first time in my life I’ve saved nine set points,” said the world No. 7.
“What a match to start the year and definitely unfortunate for everybody that it finished early even though we played for one-hour and 40 minutes. I’m happy to be through and to win the first set.”
He will next meet Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic.
Fellow Russian Karen Khachanov also won, but in an upset on the women’s side, Estonian former world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit was stunned by Chinese qualifier Zheng Qinwen 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (9/7).
Former Grand Slam champions Andy Murray and Victoria Azarenka play later Tuesday.