MELBOURNE, Australia - China's Li Na left the Australian Open in tears last year. On Monday, she was all smiles after returning to her winning ways in Melbourne.
Li, the 2011 Australian Open finalist, breezed through her first-round match, beating Sesil Karatantcheva of Kazakhstan 6-1, 6-3 in 78 minutes.
"I mean, yeah, always tough in the first round. You just come to the court 50-50. You never know if you can beat her or you can lose to her," Li said after the match.
"The next round I have to think about on Wednesday, not today," she added with a grin. "So today, just enjoy (being) the winner for the first round."
Li was in a far worse mood last year after she was bounced from the tournament by Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, wasting four match points in the second set tiebreaker. She broke down in tears while being interviewed by the Chinese media during her post-match news conference.
Li was the first Asian player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam when she captured the French Open in 2011. That came only months after she reached the Australian Open final. But she struggled to build on her breakthrough victory, however, and hired Justine Henin's former coach, Carlos Rodriguez, after Wimbledon last year to help her revamp her game.
So far, the new approach seems to be working. Li has a 25-8 win-loss record since Rodriguez joined her, winning titles at Cincinnati last August and at the inaugural Shenzhen Open two weeks ago.
"I was working with him (since) last August, so I was feeling pretty good. I don't know how is he feeling, but looks OK," she joked.
HISTORY REPEATED?: Kei Nishikori nearly missed out on revisiting the site of his historic Grand Slam run last year, when he became the first Japanese man to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in the Open era.
The 18th-ranked Nishikori retired from his semifinal match against Andy Murray at the Brisbane International with a knee injury two weeks ago and then withdrew from the Kooyong Classic exhibition last week, putting his Australian Open tournament hopes in doubt.
But Nishikori recovered in time to play in Melbourne and beat Romanian Victor Hanescu 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 in the first round on Monday, still rubbing his knee at times.
"I hurt it in Brisbane," he said of the knee. "It was a little bit of tendonitis under the knee. . It's getting better."
Nishikori upset sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France to reach the quarterfinals last year, matching Shuzo Matsuoka's result at Wimbledon in 1995, the best ever for a Japanese man at a Grand Slam. Nishikori also reached a career-high ranking of No. 15 in October, the highest ever for a Japanese man.
He says he's not feeling pressure to duplicate last year's historic feat — or go even further — despite the expectations of all the flag-waving Japanese fans in the stands.
""It's going to be a tough next round, too, so I try to play just one match at a time," he said. "And if I can do well, that's good, but if not, you know, try to do well at another slam."
BELGIAN RECORD: Long gone are the days of Belgian dominance at the top of the women's game, but an influx of Belgian men are trying to make up for the absence of the now-retired Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
Six Belgian men were playing in the singles draw at the Australian Open this year — the most at any Grand Slam event in the Open era for the tiny country.
It will be some time, however, before the men can match the results of their more famous female counterparts.
Three of the Belgian men fell in the first round on Monday, though the matches were close. The 22nd-seeded Fernando Verdasco of Spain beat David Goffin 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4; Argentina's Carlos Berlocq defeated qualifier Maxime Authom 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2; and France's Edouard Roger-Vasselin ousted another qualifier, Ruben Bemelmans, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 2-6, 7-5, 11-9.
Xavier Malisse, playing in his 11th Australian Open, provided some respite for the Belgian contingent, easily dispatching Pablo Andujar of Spain 6-3, 6-1, 6-2. Oliver Rochus was due to play later Monday, while Steve Darcis was scheduled to play his first-round match on Tuesday.
Clijsters won the Australian Open in 2011 and bowed out in the semifinals last year in her final appearance at the tournament before retiring. Henin was the 2004 Australian Open champion and reached the finals in 2006 and 2010.
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