World No.1 Ashleigh Barty made a resounding return to professional tennis after a near 12-month absence, with a straight-sets victory moving her through to the last 16 of the WTA Yarra Valley Classic.
On a star-studded day of women’s action at Melbourne Park, Barty was not the only Grand Slam champion thriving, with Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka and Sofia Kenin all progressing at the Melbourne Summer Series.
In-form Aryna Sabalenka, however, was eliminated from the WTA Gippsland Trophy by Kaia Kanepi.
The last time the tennis world saw the world No.1 in official competitive action was on 29 February 2020 in the WTA Doha semifinals.
It was little wonder a sizeable crowd flocked to MCA to see the Australian in action on home soil.
Barty opened her campaign as the Yarra Valley Classic’s top seed with a 6-3 6-3 win over Romanian Ana Bogdan; she generally controlled the pace and tempo of rallies and survived some tense moments serving out the match to set up a clash with No.16 seed Marie Bouzkova.
MORE: WTA Yarra Valley Classic draw
“I think it's natural. The last game is always a little bit tricky when you haven't played in 12 months,” she assessed.
“It's certainly nice to be back. I've been getting a little impatient the last few months getting ready to play and preparing the way I love doing and getting ready kind of for all of the fun things that come with playing a competitive tennis match.
“(It was) really nice to be back out there today.”
Following Barty onto MCA were Kvitova and Williams, for the latest instalment of their incredible rivalry. Each of their seven prior meetings had extended to three sets, with Kvitova narrowly leading the head-to-head series 4-3.
Their Tuesday night battle was another high-quality battle full of clean, deep, powerful shot-making, but for the first time it was a straight-sets affair, with Kvitova clinching a 7-6(6) 7-5 win.
"I lost many times against Venus and I knew it would be very difficult. I think it was a good quality match from both sides,” said Kvitova, who next meets Argentine Nadia Podoroska in the Yarra Valley Classic third round.
"We are kind of playing similar game. We are serving and returning pretty well … and in the rallies it's always 50-50. I lost to her in a very painful match in the US Open quarterfinals, but on the other hand I beat her in ... Wimbledon when I won it. So yeah, we are 50-50.”
After coming out on top of a brilliant first-set tiebreak, Kvitova surged to a 4-1 lead in the second before Williams wrested the momentum back. But it was the Czech whose game was more secure in the final stages, and she clinched the match with a lunging return that just cleared the net and which Williams could not control.
Muguruza, Swiatek advance
Next door at 1573 Arena, a pair of Roland Garros champions enjoyed strong starts to their 2021 seasons.
Muguruza, a winner in Paris in 2016, romped to a 6-2 6-0 win over Alison Van Uytvanck in under an hour, and will meet No.11 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round of the Yarra Valley Classic.
It was a welcome return to Melbourne Park for the Spaniard, who stormed to last year’s Australian Open final where she ultimately fell to Kenin.
Swiatek, the reigning French champion, began more slowly than Muguruza but ended the match in similarly-convincing style, beating Slovene Kaja Juvan 2-6 6-2 6-1.
It was the eighth straight win for the Polish teenager, who did not drop a set en route to her Roland Garros breakthrough in October.
She will play ninth seed Ekaterina Alexandrova for a place in the Gippsland Trophy quarterfinals.
Osaka returns to action
Earlier on Tuesday, Osaka looked sharp in dismantling Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the second round of the Gippsland Trophy.
MORE: WTA Gippsland Trophy draw
In her first official match since her 2020 US Open victory in September, Osaka served big, hit cleanly and moved well, overpowering Cornet 6-2 6-2 in just 72 minutes to extend her winning streak to 12 matches.
She did not drop serve throughout the encounter, finishing with seven aces among 22 winners.
"I was really nervous coming her. I know that the last match that I played was the finals in New York, and I really wanted to continue that momentum,” the world No.3 said.
“But I know that it's a new year, and hopefully I'll keep playing better.”
Osaka, the AO 2019 champion, will next face British comeback queen Katie Boulter, who trailed 6-3 5-4 before roaring back to beat No.14 seed Coco Gauff 3-6 7-5 6-2.
Kenin on track
World No.4 Kenin advanced at the Yarra Valley Classic after opponent Camila Giorgi was forced to retire when down a set.
Despite the abbreviated outing at MCA, Kenin said she felt good in her first hit-out of 2021.
“This obviously is not the way I wanted to win. I hope she's going to feel better for the Aussie Open. It's unfortunate, but I feel like I played well,” said Kenin, who next faces fellow American Jessica Pegula.
“It's a win. I'm going to take it, of course. I felt like I felt my game really good today, even though I was making a lot of unforced errors with my forehand. It was weird, I just felt really good.”
The 21-year-old, who went on to reach the Roland Garros final after her Australian Open breakthrough, said it felt “really special” to be back in Melbourne, but was conscious of the pressure and spotlight awaiting next week as she begins her AO title defence.
“I feel like with the matches I've had, the success I had last year, helps me. But it's the first time I'm experiencing coming back to a Grand Slam where I want to try to defend my title,” she said.
“Of course, there's nerves. Obviously (I’m) very nervous, but I'm going to do my best and we're going to see how it goes.”
Kanepi ends Sabalenka’s streak
Before Osaka extended her winning streak to 12, Sabalenka’s 15-match streak ended on the same court.
Sabalenka entered the Gippsland Open having won her past three WTA tournaments – including the Abu Dhabi 500 title in early January – but Estonia’s Kanepi outhit the erratic Belarusian 6-1 2-6 6-1 to notch her 12th career victory over a top-10 opponent.
"I play aggressive, and when I play well, I think it's tough for everybody to beat me," said the 35-year-old, a six-time major quarterfinalist and former world No.15.
Kanepi closed out Sabalenka on her sixth match point to set up a third-round clash with former world No.10 Darya Kasatkina, who beat Polona Hercog in straight sets.
Kanepi, who trailed Astra Sharma 6-1 5-3 in her first match, has won 17 of her last 18 matches after winning three 25K ITF titles in late 2020.