MELBOURNE, Jan 13 (Reuters) - China’s Li Na started the Australian Open like a woman on a mission on Monday by brutally dispatching Croatian teenager Ana Konjuh 6-2 6-0 in just over an hour.
Another former grand slam champion, though, bid an early farewell to the tournament when American Venus Williams blew a 3-0 lead in the deciding set to crash out 2-6 6-4 6-4 at the hands of Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
World number one Serena Williams begins her bid for a sixth Melbourne Park title against local Ash Barty on Rod Laver Arena later on Monday and Novak Djokovic kicks off his campaign for a fourth straight title against Lukas Lacko in the first evening match on the main showcourt.
Former French Open champion Li, twice a losing finalist at Melbourne Park, simply bludgeoned her young opponent into submission with her fierce groundstrokes to lay down a marker for the other leading contenders for the women’s title.
The fourth seed has become a big crowd favourite in Melbourne Park after her two runs to the final and was again well supported on Hisense Arena as she rode Konjuh’s early challenge before racing away with the second set.
“This is my favourite grand slam, I always love playing in Melbourne,” a smiling Li said before leaving court.
The 31-year-old next faces another promising young talent in the second round after 16-year-old qualifier Belinda Bencic beat 43-year-old Japanese Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-4 4-6 6-3 in a battle of the generations.
Bencic’s fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, was the first man to reach the second round when the heavy strapping on Andrey Golubev’s ankle and a lengthy medical timeout were not enough to keep the Kazakh on court and he retired trailing 6-4 4-1.
Wawrinka, seeded eighth, will next play Alejandro Falla of Colombia, who beat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-7(2) 6-2 6-2 6-3, with a potential meeting with Djokovic looming in the quarter-finals.
“We never want the opponent to retire for injury, but that’s what happened today,” said Wawrinka.
“(But) I was feeling good. I think it’s one of the best starts in a grand slam if I look at my game and how I felt on the court. I was moving well, playing strong, playing okay.”
Any hopes of success for British women at Melbourne Park dissipated inside the first three hours after Laura Robson was humbled 6-3 6-0 by Kirsten Flipkens and Heather Watson lost 7-5 3-6 6-3 to Daniela Hantuchova.
“I definitely expected to play better, but, you know, it happens,” said Robson.
Makarova upset an injured Serena Williams in the fourth round of the 2012 tournament and completed a family double when 33-year-old Venus’s serve fell apart in the third set on Margaret Court Arena.
“I think she played really well, and I think just my level was a little bit too up and down,” said Venus.
Editing by Peter Rutherford