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Nishikori eases past Hanescu in first round of Aussie Open

AFP-JIJI, AP

Kei Nishikori eased doubts over a knee injury by beating Romania’s Victor Hanescu in four sets in the first round of the Australian Open on Monday.

A left knee injury forced the No. 16 seed out of this month’s Brisbane International and Kooyong Classic, but he showed little discomfort in surging home 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 over the 63rd-ranked Hanescu.

Nishikori, Asia’s big hope in the men’s draw, recovered from dropping the opening set in a tiebreaker to take the match and will face Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq in the next round.

“It feels good. I think it’s no problem. I played four sets, it’s fine and it should be okay,” Nishikori said of his knee tendinitis.

“I had an echo (scan) a couple of days ago. I saw the picture and it showed nothing. It’s good.”

Nishikori, who reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the best-ever Grand Slam performance by a Japanese man, trumped Hanescu with his court speed and blazing groundstrokes.

“Of all the Grand Slams I feel more comfortable playing here,” he said. “Oceania is almost Asia and you could see at the match today there were a lot of Japanese and people from Asia who came along and I felt a lot of support.”

Nishikori offered his support for Wu Di, 21, the world No. 186 who will become the first Chinese man to play in a Grand Slam tournament when he faces Croatia’s Ivan Dodig on Tuesday.

“He’s playing well. He’s still young. Nothing to lose for him, so he should play loose,” Nishikori said. “And, of course, he will want to win here, but if he does well, then the result will come.”

In other matches, Novak Djokovic didn’t have any trouble in his first match back on Rod Laver Arena since his shirt-ripping victory celebrations last year, starting his bid for a third consecutive Australian Open title with a 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 win over Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Top-ranked Djokovic faced only three break points in the match, saving them all, and lifted his tempo when it counted most.

His five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute win over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 final is already part of Australian Open folklore. He tore off his shirt and flexed his muscles after the marathon win last year, and is hoping to add another chapter to the story by becoming the first man to win three consecutive Australian titles in the Open era.

“Hello everybody it’s great to be back,” Djokovic told the crowd. “I have great memories, especially the last two years.”

Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams had nearly flawless opening matches in the women’s draw earlier in the day.

Sharapova finished her first match of the year in 55 minutes, cruising to a 6-0, 6-0 win over Olga Puchkova.

The No. 2-ranked Sharapova, who lost the final to Victoria Azarenka here last year, faced only two break points in the match and she saved both of those in the first game.

Then she went on a 12-game roll that earned her a second “double bagel” inside a year.

Sharapova withdrew from the Brisbane International earlier this month with an injured right collarbone, saying she wanted to concentrate on being fit.

“After a couple of close games and a few break points, I certainly started to concentrate a bit better,” she said. “I didn’t want to concentrate on the fact I hadn’t played a lot of matches. I just wanted to focus on what was ahead of me and really be aggressive.

“It was one of those matches where I didn’t try to worry about her too much.”

Sharapova has a potential third-round match against Williams, who needed just an hour for her opening 6-1, 6-0 win over Galina Voskoboeva.