Contesting his first match since capturing the Next Gen ATP Finals title in Milan in November, Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz picked up exactly where he left off to make a winning Australian Open 2022 start.
The right-hander needed less than two hours to sail past Chilean qualifier Alejandro Tabilo 6-2 6-2 6-3, striking 40 winners to his opponent's six during a dominant display.
"I felt really good," said the 31st seed, admitting Monday's performance exceeded even his own expectations.
"I played [at] a great level the first match of the season … hope the next matches [are] going to be the same."
Alcaraz, who earned his debut berth at Melbourne Park last year by winning three matches in the qualifying draw, has now extended his Grand Slam round of 128 record to an unbeaten 5-0.
Often compared to his self-professed idol Rafael Nadal, the younger Spaniard skipped lead-up events in favour of putting in more time at coach Juan Carlos Ferrero's Equelite de Villena Academy.
"I preferred to just extend the pre-season, do more weeks to get ready for this season … to get strong, to get more power," explained Alcaraz, who is competing in a sleeveless tank top that flaunts his improved physique.
Despite winning his maiden ATP Tour title in Umag and generally thriving on clay courts, the youngster – who at 18 is the youngest man in the AO22 men's singles draw – has also been sure to dismiss the notion that he can only produce results on the dirt.
"I'm playing really, really good on hard courts," said the Murcia native, who reached the US Open quarterfinals last September, scalping seeds including Stefanos Tsitsipas and Cameron Norrie in his Flushing Meadows debut.
Alcaraz is aiming to build on the momentum gained during the 2021 season, and to further develop his game.
"[It] is really important to have a good goal at the end of the year," he said.
"This year I know what I have to do is improve like last year, that's my way, still learning, [gaining] experience, still growing up. I'm a young player, this year is to grow up."
The teen has his sights set on a year-end ranking within the top 15, and – though he thinks it might be a stretch – securing a berth for the Nitto ATP Finals, designated to the world's top eight.
"To be able to play the Nitto Finals, it's a really good goal for me, but so difficult as well," said Alcaraz.
A deep run in Melbourne would certainly help set up a stellar sophomore season. Waiting for the Spaniard in the second round is a test in the form of Serbian Dusan Lajovic, who dealt Marton Fucsovics a maiden first-round AO loss, battling past the Hungarian in five sets.
The 31 year-old Lajovic sits just eight places below Alcaraz at world No. 39, and is defending points from a career-best round of 16 appearance in Melbourne last year as the 23rd seed.
It's the pair's first-time meeting, and sure to be one to watch on Wednesday.