MELBOURNE, Australia – Li Na of China was nearly flawless Sunday at a place where she usually plays well, beating Ana Konjuh of Croatia 6-2, 6-0 in 61 minutes in the first round of the Australian Open.
Li is a two-time finalist at Melbourne Park, losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and Victoria Azarenka last year, and has advanced to at least the fourth round of the season’s first major tournament every year since 2010.
“This is my favorite Grand Slam,” Li said. “Always looking forward to come back to Melbourne.”
On Sunday, she frequently strayed from her traditional baseline position, several times volleying from the center of the court for winners during the fourth game of the second set when she broke Konjuh’s service.
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Fourth-seeded Li will next play 16-year-old qualifier Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who beat 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan in three sets.
Meanwhile, just as she was starting to show glimpses of returning to form, American Venus Williams was let down by her serve and her concentration at crucial times and lost 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to 22nd-seeded Ekaterina Makarova of Russia.
Makarova upset Serena Williams in the fourth round here in 2012, but was comprehensively outplayed in the first set against the elder of the Williams sisters Sunday, dropping serve three times.
Williams had chances in the second set, too, missing a break-point opportunity to go up 4-2, and then serving three consecutive double-faults after leading the ninth game 40-30 to surrender a crucial break.
The 33-year-old Williams, the second-oldest player in the tournament and a seven-time major singles champion, took some time out after the second set to change her dress and came back strongly, taking a 3-0 lead. But Makarova rallied again and Williams’ error count rose — she had 21 of her 56 unforced errors in the deciding set.
She has struggled with injuries and illness in recent seasons but reached the final of a WTA event in Auckland, New Zealand, to open the year and said after arriving at Melbourne Park she was feeling better than she had in years.
“The last 12 months I have had issues, but this year I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.”
That didn’t happen against Makarova.
“My level was a little bit too up and down. Obviously my error count was a little high,” Williams said. “I have to give her a lot of credit, though, she was very determined, played hard.”
It was the second time in 14 appearances Williams lost in the first round at the Australian Open, where her best run remains a loss to her sister in the 2003 final.
“It was a really tough match to play someone like Venus in the first round, she is such a great player,” Makarova said. “At 3-0 down (in the final set), I decided I had to fight for every point. I just kept fighting and I turned around the match.”
Makarova will meet another American in the second round, as qualifier Irina Falconi beat Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain 6-3, 6-1.
No. 18 Kirsten Flipkens, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year, was the first woman to advance when she beat Britain’s Laura Robson 6-3, 6-0. The Belgian made only four unforced errors — compared with 32 for Robson, who was ranked 48th and knocked out 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in reaching the third round at last year’s Australian Open.
Also advancing on the women’s side were No. 9 Angelique Kerber and No. 31 Daniela Hantuchova.
Eighth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland was the first man through to the second round, advancing after a mere 15 games when Andrey Golubev retired with an injured left leg.
Wawrinka, who lost 12-10 in the fifth set to eventual champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the fourth round here last year in the longest Grand Slam match of 2013, was leading 6-4, 4-1 when his Kazakhstan rival retired from the match after 65 minutes.
Other men advancing included No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, No. 32 Ivan Dodig and American Sam Querry.