MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — For five games in the second set, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis in her first-round match at the Australian Open.
Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope, before Williams regained her composure to win 6-4, 6-3 on Tuesday. The six-time Australian Open champion improved her impressive record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.
The No. 2-ranked Williams' priority here is an Open era record 23rd major title. She's has taken the first step, beating a player who was seeded 12th here last year and reached a career-high No. 7 ranking.
United States' Serena Williams prepares to serve to Switzerland's Belinda Bencic during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
"She was just recently in the top 10. I knew it would be one of the toughest first-round matches I've ever played," the newly engaged Williams said.
In round two she'll meet Lucie Safarova, who beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1.
Bencic got one service break in the first set, but only took two points in the first three games on Williams' serve in the second.
Serving for the match at 6-4, 5-1, things changed for Williams. She finished her 2016 after the U.S. Open, resting injuries, and started 2017 with an error-prone loss in New Zealand.
Williams served only her second double-fault of the match to give Bencic a break-point chance, and the Swiss teenager converted it with a crosscourt winning forehand.
Williams double-faulted again on her first match point, but made no mistake on her second. She finished with 30 winners and 30 unforced errors, eight errors and four double-faults.
Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta both made their Grand Slam breakthroughs last year, both prepared for the season's first major with title runs in Australia and both advanced with straight sets wins.
U.S. Open finalist Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo.
"I feel good on the court, especially when I win my first title in the first week of the year," said Pliskova, who beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals before losing to Angelique Kerber. "So I'm ready for the tournament."
Konta, who won the Sydney International title last week, had a 7-5, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens.
"I definitely love playing here. It's a dream," Konta said. "A lot has happened in the last year, but I'm just enjoying playing and getting better each day."
Ninth-seeded Konta was a surprise semifinalist in her debut at the Australian Open last year, starting with a first-round win over Venus Williams and sparking a strong 2016 season which ended with her in the top 10.
Also advancing were No. 21 Caroline Garcia, No. 30 Ekaterina Makarova and Naomi Osaka of Japan beat Thai wild-card entry Luksika Kumkhum 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5.
Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic got his campaign started with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Dustin Brown. The No. 3-seeded Raonic reached the semifinals here last year in his best run so far at Melbourne Park.
No. 24 Alexander Zverev held off Robin Haase 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, No. 25 Gilles Simon beat U.S. wild-card entry Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 and No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber advanced.