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Novak Djokovic cruises past Mitchell Krueger in opening round at Australian Open

AFP-JIJI, AP

Novak Djokovic began his bid for a record seventh Australian Open title in easy fashion Tuesday, crushing 230th-ranked American Mitchell Krueger 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 at Rod Laver Arena.

The world No. 1 had reached the Australian Open second round for 13 consecutive years and that streak was never threatened by the qualifier, who was making his debut at Melbourne Park.

Djokovic, appearing in his 300th Grand Slam match, dropped his second service game to go 1-2 behind in the first set but broke back immediately and went on to record his 259th match win in a major against a gritty but outclassed opponent.

“Playing him for the first time I didn’t know what to expect,” said the Serbian top seed. “He was very competitive and I had to work hard. I enjoyed it, hope you did too.”

Djokovic closed out last season magnificently, making an astonishing climb back from outside the world’s top 20 in June, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on the way to reclaiming the No. 1 ranking in November.

It was a stark contrast to the way he exited Melbourne a year ago at the hands of South Korea’s Chung Hyeon in the last 16.

He then struggled as elbow surgery was followed by a string of poor results.

Djokovic will take a trip down memory lane next when he plays old foe Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round.

Frenchman Tsonga was on the losing side in the 2008 Australian Open final as Djokovic won his first of 14 Grand Slams.

“I have great respect for Jo,” said Djokovic. “We will face each other again on this great court, hopefully. I am looking forward to it.”

Former world No. 4 Tsonga missed seven months of 2018 after knee surgery and needed a wildcard to get into the tournament after his ranking dropped outside the top 200.

But the unseeded 33-year-old, who has also reached five Grand Slam semi-finals in his career, will be a dangerous opponent, having enjoyed a run to the last four in his comeback tournament at Brisbane.

And Tsonga is one of only three players to have recorded wins against Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal while they were ranked No. 1. The other two are Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.

“If anyone has some advice how to play him, come and see me in my locker room,” Djokovic joked.

Earlier Tuesday, Venus Williams was one game away from being ousted from the first round before coming all the way back to eliminate 25th-seeded Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

Williams needed more than 2½ hours to pull out the victory and avoid what would have been her fourth opening-round loss in her past six appearances in Melbourne.

This is the first time in five years that Williams is not seeded at a Grand Slam tournament.

She is a seven-time major champion and a two-time runner-up in Australia but is currently ranked only 36th.

Williams trailed by a set and a break at 5-3 in the second when Buzarnescu served for the match. Williams broke at love there, was better in the second tiebreaker, then surged ahead quickly in the final set with a break to lead 2-0.

Meanwhile, Simona Halep is not done just yet. Trying to avoid a second consecutive first-round exit as the No. 1 seed at a Grand Slam tournament, Halep forced a third set against Kaia Kanepi by taking the second by a 6-4 score.

Kanepi won the opening set 7-6 (7-2) and was up a break in the second before Halep climbed back into the match. Halep advanced by winning the third set 6-2.