Serena Williams has revealed she may not have been able to play the Australian Open had it not been delayed due to Covid-19.
The 23-time grand slam singles champion withdrew prior to her second-round match at the French Open last October with an achilles injury she suffered at the US Open, and the problem took longer than expected to heal.
The need for players to complete quarantine on arrival in Australia meant the year’s first grand slam was pushed back by three weeks and, after beating Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 6-4 at the Yarra Valley Classic, Williams said: “It was great for me because I needed the time, because I couldn’t practise because of my achilles.
“I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season. I definitely took that time to recover and to just do the best that I can, and now it’s a lot better. Achilles are like the worst thing, honestly. Oh my goodness, I didn’t realise it would be this long. So I definitely was pushing the limits, but I’m here.”
Australian Gavrilova is a former top-20 player now ranked outside 400 because of injury problems and she pushed Williams in the second set.
“It was a good match for me,” said the fifth seed. “It wasn’t easy at all. It was lots of rallies and lots of movement, and she’s from here, so she obviously always plays hard. So it was really good and it felt good to clinch that in the end.”
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Williams next faces a familiar foe in Tsvetana Pironkova, who upset ninth seed Donna Vekic 1-6, 6-4, 6-2. Third seed Karolina Pliskova was a 6-3, 6-2 winner over Italy’s Elisabetta Cocciaretto while there were also victories for seeds Marketa Vondrousova, Petra Martic, Danielle Collins, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Nadia Podoroska.
Britain’s Katie Boulter began her season in impressive fashion with victory over Anna Kalinskaya but there were defeats for Cameron Norrie and Francesca Jones.
Boulter is ranked down at 371 after a lengthy spell out with a back injury in 2019 and the Gippsland Trophy is just her second WTA event in close to two years. But the 24-year-old was dominant against 107th-ranked Russian Kalinskaya, winning 6-1, 6-3 to set up a second-round meeting with the American teenager Coco Gauff, who battled past Jil Teichmann of Switzerland 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5).
Fifth seed Johanna Konta will play American Bernarda Pera on Tuesday after a bye in the first round.
Norrie, who began his season by reaching the semi-finals of the Delray Beach Open, led early against 15th seed Tommy Paul of the US at the Murray River Open, but the American fought back in the second set to take the match 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
Dan Evans, seeded eighth in the tournament, will begin his campaign in the second round after receiving a bye and will face either Portugal’s Pedro Sousa or local wildcard Li Tu.
Jones was making her tour-level debut at the Yarra Valley Classic but found 14th seed Nadia Podoroska a real step up, with last year’s French Open semi-finalist winning 6-1, 6-3. Jones, 20, has rightly been lauded for achievement in qualifying for the Australian Open and will make her grand slam main-draw debut in Melbourne.
All the Australian Open warm-up events are being played at Melbourne Park, and elsewhere in the Gippsland Trophy, third seed Elina Svitolina began her campaign by defeating Andrea Petkovic 6-1, 6-4.
In the final match of the day, top seed Simona Halep was given a good workout by young Russian Anastasia Potapova on her way to a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Tenth seed Wang Qiang, who knocked out Williams at the Australian Open last year, was beaten 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 by Italy’s Jasmine Paolini while there also wins for Jelena Ostapenko and eighth seed Karolina Muchova.