| Serena Williams celebrates a point against Emilie Loit of France in Round I at the Australian Open on Tuesday. Williams won 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5. (AFP)
Melbourne: Australian Open favourites Serena Williams and Lleyton Hewitt survived scares before winning their first round matches on Tuesday.
Williams’ bid to capture the last major title to elude her almost ended at the first hurdle before she fought back to beat unheralded Frenchwoman Emilie Loit 3-6, 7-6, 7-5.
Hewitt, knocked out in the opening round last year when he was suffering from a bout of chickenpox, almost tripped up again when he was pushed all the way by 155th-ranked Swedish qualifier Magnus Larsson before eventually winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 6-2.
“It’s a little bit of a wake up call for me but a win is a win,” the top-seeded Australian said. “I didn’t press the panic button as much as I would have done a couple of years ago.”
Williams was warned for swearing as her frustration boiled over in her torrid encounter with 56th-ranked Loit.
Playing her first match in Melbourne for two years after missing the 2002 tournament with an ankle injury, the world number one clinched the second set tiebreak to stay in the match.
The powerful American then clawed her way back from a break down in the third to book a second-round clash with Belgian Els Callens.
“This match is just a heads-up that everyone wants to beat me and I probably just needed a reminder,” Williams said. “I never thought I was going to lose that match, the thought never crossed my mind. I did think ‘gosh, this is bad’, but I didn’t think I was actually going to lose.”
While Williams and Hewitt made shaky starts to their campaigns, two of their biggest rivals showed they were in great touch with powerful displays. Fourth seed Kim Clijsters was in irresistible form in crushing American Samantha Reeves 6-2, 6-1 while last year’s men’s runner-up Marat Safin showed he was ready to go one better this time with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Dutchman Raemon Sluiter.
The big Russian showed no ill-effects from the shoulder problem that forced him to pull out of last week’s Sydney International although he said he was using anti-inflammatory drugs to ease his pain.
He fired 13 aces past Sluiter, including one timed at 209 kph, to win in two-and-a-half hours.
After securing a second round meeting with Spaniard Albert Montanes, Safin said: “It’s okay, the pain is going away.
“It’s much better and by the next match I think it will be perfect.”
Clijsters beat Williams in last year’s season-ending WTA Championships and has now won 20 of her last 21 matches against all opposition.
The 19-year-old has also won four of the past five tournaments she has entered, including the Sydney International, and has been working out with boyfriend Hewitt to boost her hopes of beating the Williams sisters.
“I’ve beaten Serena and Venus (Williams) once before but every time I play against them it’s a different match,” Clijsters said.
“I don’t know how close I am (to beating them again), it’s hard to answer that. I’m just trying to get as fit as I can to be able to compete with the top girls.”
After the shock loss of two-time champion Jennifer Capriati on Monday, there were no major casualties on the second day at Melbourne Park.
Twice French Open finalist Alex Corretja was the highest seed at 15 to lose on Tuesday. He fell to fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-3.
Men’s sixth seed Roger Federer ousted Flavio Saretta 7-6, 7-5, 6-3, ninth seed Andy Roddick recovered from a set down and a break in the third to beat Zeljko Krajan 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-3 and seventh seed Jiri Novak beat Vince Spadea 6-2, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6.
The women’s matches also went mostly according to script with sixth-seed Monica Seles crushing Slovakian teenager Lubomira Kurhajcova 6-0, 6-1 in 45 minutes and eighth seed Russian Anastasia Myskina sweeping past Eva Fislova 7-5, 6-3.