Serena Williams hits a return against Eugenie Bouchard during their women’s singles in the Australian Open in Melbourne yesterday. The American eased to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. Image Credit: AFP

Melbourne: Serena Williams stepped up her drive for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam on Thursday by swatting aside Eugenie Bouchard, but top seed Simona Halep had to dig deep to stay in the Australian Open on a day of epic battles.

The American great followed up her first round 49-minute romp by spending just 70 minutes on Rod Laver Arena to dispose of the Canadian 6-2, 6-2.

“It wasn’t an easy match tonight,” said the 37-year-old.

“So I knew ‘Serena, you’ve got to come out hot, you’ve got to come out firing, she’s a really good player and I haven’t had many matches since last year’.”

Williams is bidding to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam crowns, and win an eighth in Australia, on her first return to Melbourne Park since lifting the trophy in 2017 while pregnant.

Men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic won an emotional 2008 Australian Open final rematch with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The Serbian top seed is also looking to make history by winning a seventh title.

He was too good again for France’s Tsonga, who he beat in the 2008 final, rolling through 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

“You could feel the tension on court at the beginning. We felt a lot of emotion and tried to play a great game,” said Djokovic as the memories of that tense final came flooding back.

In contrast to Williams, world No. 1 Halep staggered through against American Sofia Kenin 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 — her second three-set test in a row.

“I have no idea how I won this tonight, it’s so tough to explain what happened on court,” said the French Open champion, who now meets Venus Williams after the 38-year-old rolled back the years to beat France’s Alize Cornet.

In another titanic battle, Canadian Milos Raonic ousted 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in four tightly contested sets that all went to tiebreaks, while eighth seed Kei Nishikori was stretched to a draining five sets against Ivo Karlovic.

Seventh seed Dominic Thiem limped out when he retired while losing 7-5, 6-4, 2-0 to young Australian wild card Alexei Popyrin.

Thiem went through a first round five-setter against Benoit Paire that finished in the early hours of Wednesday morning and he never looked 100 per cent.

US Open champion and fourth seed Naomi Osaka had it much easier, sweeping past Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek 6-2, 6-4 with the roof closed on Margaret Court Arena after rain interrupted the opening major of the year.

The 21-year-old’s breakthrough at Flushing Meadow over Serena Williams last year made her a new standard bearer for tennis in her homeland, Asia and the next generation of women, and she is working hard on living up to the hype.

Energy-sapping

“I thought I served all right, this was my first time playing her and I’m just happy to win to be honest,” Osaka said after setting up a clash with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei.

In contrast, Asia’s top-ranked men’s player Nishikori needed an energy-sapping 3hr 48 min to get past big-serving Croat Karlovic 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 in humid conditions.

“It was a tough match which could have gone both ways. He almost had it for sure,” said the eighth seed, a three-time quarter-finalist at Melbourne Park.

Alexander Zverev almost blew his quest for a maiden Grand Slam title before registering a 7-6, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7, 6-1 win over France’s Jeremy Chard.

The fourth seed looked far from his anointed status as the flag-bearer for the next generation as he struggled to put away the veteran world No. 36, who is 10 years his senior.

Sixteenth seed Raonic emerged the victor against Wawrinka, a three-time Grand Slam champion who is on the comeback trail from injury.

The Swiss, unseeded for the first time since his debut in 2006, fell to the Canadian 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6.

Raonic, who got to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2016 before losing to Andy Murray, will next face France’s Pierre-Hugues Herbert who beat last year’s semi-finalist Hyung Cheon of South Korea.

Despite being seeded six and seven respectively, neither Elina Svitolina or Karolina Pliskova has progressed further than the last eight at the Australian Open.

But self-assured Svitolina is bubbling with confidence after dismantling Viktoria Kuzmova 6-4, 6-1, while Pliskova woke up after losing the first set to race past Madison Brengle 4-6, 6-1, 6-0.

Other women through included Italy’s Camila Giorgi and China’s impressive 21st seed Wang Qiang. Belgium’s 12th seed Elise Mertens lined up a third-round showdown with American Madison Keys.

Men staying in the hunt included 11th seed Borna Coric of Croatia and Spain’s 23rd seed Pablo Carreno-Busta.

Selected results

Men’s singles

Novak Djokovic (SRB x1) bt Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, Kei Nishikori (JPN x8) bt Ivo Karlovic (CRO) 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, Borna Coric (CRO x11) bt Marton Fucsovics (HUN) 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, Pablo Carreno-Busta (ESP x23) bt Ilya Ivashka (BLR) 6-2, 6-3, 7-6, Fabio Fognini (ITA x12) bt Leonardo Mayer (ARG) 7-6, 6-3, 7-6, Milos Raonic (CAN x16) bt Stan Wawrinka (SUI) 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6, Denis Shapovalov (CAN x25) bt Taro Daniel (JPN) 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, David Goffin (BEL x21) bt Marius Copil (ROU) 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, Daniil Medvedev (RUS x15) bt Ryan Harrison (USA) 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, Alexei Popyrin (AUS) bt Dominic Thiem (AUT x7) 7-5, 6-4, 2-0 ret, Alex Bolt (AUS) bt Gilles Simon (FRA x29) 2-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, Lucas Pouille (FRA x28) bt Maximilian Marterer (GER) 7-6, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4

Women’s singles

Camila Giorgi (ITA x27) bt Iga Swiatek (POL) 6-2, 6-0, Wang Qiang (CHN x21) bt Aleksandra Krunic (SRB) 6-2, 6-3, Elina Svitolina (UKR x6) bt Viktoria Kuzmova (SVK) 6-4, 6-1, Karolina Pliskova (CZE x7) bt Madison Brengle (USA) 4-6, 6-1, 6-0, Anastasija Sevastova (LAT x13) bt Bianca Andreescu (CAN) 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, Elise Mertens (BEL x12) bt Margarita Gasparyan (RUS) 6-1, 7-5, Madison Keys (USA x17) bt Anastasia Potapova (RUS) 6-3, 6-4, Naomi Osaka (JPN x4) bt Tamara Zidansek (SLO) 6-2, 6-4, Simona Halep (ROU x1) bt Sofia Kenin (USA) 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, Venus Williams (USA) bt Alize Cornet (FRA) 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, Dayana Yastremska (UKR) bt Carla Suarez (ESP x23) 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, Serena Williams (UAS X 16) bt Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) 6-2, 6-2