MELBOURNE, Australia - No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova continued her bright start to the new decade with a 6-1, 7-5 win over former World No.10 Kristina Mladenovic to reach the second round of the Australian Open.
A semifinalist at last year's event, Pliskova began the season with a third Brisbane International title, and is yet to lose a match to start the season after dispatching Mladenovic after one hour and 24 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
"It's a new beginning here," she said during her on-court interview. "It was a great start and some great matches, so a definite good start to the year."
Pliskova looked to have one of the toughest first round opponents of the top seeds, a rival and former Top 10 player. The pair split the first four matches of their head-to-head and last played at the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships when the Frenchwoman, fresh off a maiden WTA title run at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, shocked the self-styled Ace Queen - who had been seeded No.2 there, as well - in straight sets.
"It definitely was a tough first round and a tough draw for me. In the end, I think it was a good test to start with such a high-quality match. I know Kiki very well, since we were both a young age, so I knew it was going to be tough. We had some good matches in the past. It was especially tough mentally in the second set, but I'm happy to be through."
Mladenovic ended 2019 showing signs she was back to that form when she reached the semifinals of the Zhengzhou Open and Kremlin Cup, saving her best for the Fed Cup final, when she outlasted World No.1 Ashleigh Barty in a third set tie-break en route to France's first win since 2003.
Working with a revamped coaching team that includes Daniel Vallverdu and longtime friend Olga Savchuk, the Czech powerhouse appeared eager to avoid the potential upset as play opened on Tuesday morning, winning the first eight points of the match en route to a 5-0 lead.
Mladenovic got on the board but struggled both off the ground and her second serve, hitting 10 unforced errors and ceding all five points to the former World No.1 as she fell behind the opening set. Pliskova, by contrast, made nine winners to just four errors of her own, dropping just two points behind her first serve.
The second set began on more even footing as the 26-year-old French star struck booming winners off both sides in the first two points. She saved a break point and began pushing Pliskova through her opening two service games, holding a total of four break points the No.2 was made to save.
Pliskova soon steadied and made her move in the seventh game, reversing a 40-0 deficit to break Mladenovic, forcing a backhand from the Frenchwoman into the net.
Mladenovic made a brave last stand, quickly breaking back and surging to within a game of leveling the match, but Pliskova was undaunted, tying up the set and securing another break to find herself serving for the match.
"I think I started very well," she said in her post-match press conference. "For sure she improved her level a little bit in the second set. So that's why it was a little bit closer. But still it doesn't have to be that close. I think I could do better definitely on 4-3 and serving.
"But I think was quite good for first match. I was little nervous in the beginning, so I think could be much worse. Of course the match was not easy. So I think, yeah, it was a good test for a first round."
Racing back form 0-30 down, she made it over the finish line on her first match point after hitting an unreturnable serve.
In all, she struck a solid 20 winners to 17 unforced errors, and while Mladenovic was far more aggressive in the second set - making 13 winners in that set alone - she was ultimately undone by 23 unforced errors.
Another challenge likely looms for Pliskova in the next round, as she next faces the winner of the first round match between former Porsche Tennis Grand Prix champion Laura Siegemund and two-time Grand Slam semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe.
"I played both of them, of course. CoCo not for a while because she has not been around for a while. But still, she can play huge game, can serve well. So there is going to be a lot about patience and just waiting for chances.
"Of course with Laura, we played, I think, in Stuttgart. Maybe that's the only match we played, and she's kind of always good there. And it's clay. So I think she's much better on clay. She's using pretty much everything what she can use on the court, dropshots, coming to the net. So it's going to be a lot of things happening on the court. But I think if I just play solid enough and just fast and maybe similar to today, it should be okay."