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Djokovic starts Australian Open defense

– MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic cruised through his first match at Rod Laver Arena since his shirt-ripping victory celebration last year, opening his bid for a third consecutive Australian Open title with a 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 win over Paul-Henri Mathieu on Monday.

The top-ranked Djokovic faced only three break points, saving them all, and lifted his tempo when it counted most against Mathieu.

Djokovic’s five-set win over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 final that lasted almost six hours 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 by becoming the first man to win three consecutive Australian titles in the Open era.

Nine others have won back-to-back titles: none have claimed three in a row since the Open era started in 1968.

“Any achievement, especially if it’s part of history, would mean a lot to me,” Djokovic said. “I love this sport. This sport is my life since I was 4 years old. I try to generate this great desire to play this sport from that love.

“I think it’s too early, again, to speak eventually about the title because there are many contenders to win this title.”

Djokovic, who lost to Australia’s Bernard Tomic in the Hopman Cup this month, said his win over Mathieu, who reached a career-high No. 12 ranking in 2008, was a good stepping stone for his second-round match against American Ryan Harrison, a 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 winner over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia.

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 on center court. She showed no signs of trouble with her sore right collarbone.

The No. 2-ranked Sharapova, who lost to Victoria Azarenka in last year’s Melbourne final before going on to win the French Open, faced only two break points in her opener 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 of a year.

Sharapova withdrew from the Brisbane International this month with the collarbone injury, saying she wanted to concentrate on being fit for the first major of the season. She skipped the Brisbane tournament last year, and went on to reach the Australian Open final.

“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 of Kazakhstan.

No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska won the last nine games in her opening 7-5, 6-0 win over Australian wild-card entry Bojana Bobusic, and 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur beat Chang Kai-chen of Taiwan 7-6 (3), 6-3 to end a run of five losses on home soil.

Sixth-seeded Li Na, who lost the Australian Open final before winning the 2011 French Open, had a 6-1, 6-3 win over Sesil Karatantcheva of Kazakhstan, while No. 18 Julia Gorges of Germany and No. 27 Sorana Cirstea of Romania also advanced. Former No. 1-ranked Jelena Jankovic beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 6-2, 6-2.

On the men’s side, 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych defeated Michael Russell 6-3, 7-5, 6-3, No. 10 Nicolas Almagro of Spain outlasted American qualifier Steve Johnson 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2, No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka beat German qualifier Cedrik-Marcel Stebe 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 and No. 16 Kei Nishikori of Japan had a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 win over Romania’s Victor Hanescu.

Also advancing were No. 22 Fernando Verdasco of Spain, No. 26 Jurgen Melzer of Austria and No. 32 Julien Benneteau of France, who ousted rising Bulgarian star Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

Williams played with power and determination, and took command of the match with a steady stream of winners and powerful serves.

Williams skipped last year’s Australian Open due to illness and was warmly welcomed with applause as she entered the court. She had the biggest jump of any of the top players in 2012, moving from outside the top 100 to finish the year at No. 24.

Williams, who has won seven major titles, said she was happy with the match statistics, particularly her serve, so early in the season.

“It’s hard to play the first match in a major, first thing of the year, and that can be a lot of pressure,’ she said. “I did my best to just close it out.”

Her younger sister, Serena, was sitting in the crowd. Serena is the strong favorite to win the Australian Open, heading into the tournament with 35 wins in her past 36 matches including titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open.

No. 3-ranked Serena Williams is in the top half of the draw with Azarenka, and the pair won’t start until Tuesday.

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