December is the time when professional tennis players put in the work – the crucial on-court sweat equity – that tennis fans don’t see. For Belinda Bencic, that training block was interrupted by Covid-19. For two full weeks, she didn’t hit a ball.

“I’m still looking for this kind of confidence – really just playing the balls without even thinking about missing,” Bencic said after a 6-4, 6-3 first-round victory over Kristina Mladenovic in the opening round of the Australian Open. “I just think, yeah, with playing matches and practicing again and everything, this kind of level will come. I’m not too worried about this.”

Still, the reigning Olympic singles gold medalist faces a major stress test Wednesday against Amanda Anisimova, who is at the opposite end of the conditioning spectrum. The 20-year-old American has won all six of her matches this year – five in the Melbourne Summer Set 2 event to open the season and a first-round win over qualifier Arianne Hartono. That 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 result was more difficult than expected.

“Today was an off day for me,” Anisimova told reporters afterward. “I had some personal stuff, so I was not completely there in the match. But I think people forget that also tennis players are human beings. So we can’t play our best tennis if something happens.”

Anisimova did not reveal what the issue was, but said as she gains experience it’s getting easier to “control the nerves and reel yourself back in.”

She is comforted by the fact that Darren Cahill is, at least for now, in her coaching corner. When he and Simona Halep split in late 2021, Anisimova reached out to him and they agreed to work together in Australia. He oversaw her first-round warmup, but missed the match because of his broadcasting responsibilities. Nevertheless, Anisimova said she heard his voice.

“He’s said a lot of helpful things in the last couple of weeks,” she said, “so I was trying to keep that in the back of my head.”

Cahill’s primary focus, she said, is improving her strengths. At the same time, Anisimova noted, “I can do a little bit of a better job with my serve and backhand in tight matches.”

After her 14-day layoff, Bencic is just happy to play those tight matches. She began the year at the Sydney Tennis Classic, advancing to the quarterfinals – opposite No.8-ranked Paula Badosa, who prevailed 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-3.

“My fitness definitely was very off,” the Bencic, the No.22 seed said. “I mean, my pulse was getting very up in the practices and even after Sydney. After the Badosa match, I was very, very tired, and the breathing and everything.

“I think it’s getting better day by day.”

She and Anisimova have met only once, with Bencic taking that 2019 Mallorca quarterfinal in straight sets.

“Yeah, it’s a tough second round, that’s for sure,” Bencic said. “For sure she's in form, but I think maybe I will try to stop her.”

For sure, Anisimova will have the same goal. “She’s an incredible player,” Anisimova said. “I think my game and her game. … It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

The top half of the draw has already lost two prominent seeds. No.9 Ons Jabeur withdrew with a back injury and No.11 Sofia Kenin lost to fellow American Madison Keys. Three qualifiers and a wildcard find themselves in the second round.

Other notable matches:

[1] Ashleigh Barty vs. [Q] Lucia Bronzetti

It’s tough enough to face the World No.1 under any circumstances, but when she’s serving the lights out … well, that’s the challenge for Bronzetti, a 23-year-old Italian ranked No.142. Barty, 5-0 to start the year, hasn’t been broken in four straight matches and is working on a streak of 41 consecutive service holds. “I’m not one for stats at the best of times,” Barty said. “But I think obviously the last kind of five or six matches I felt like I found a really good rhythm on my service games. I think I did a pretty good job of winning first and second points. And if I didn’t, I was able to call that back and not dig myself into a hole where I was fighting off two or three breakpoints in a row.” Barty defeated another qualifier, Lesia Tsurenko, 6-0, 6-1 in the first round and has been the WTA’s top-ranked player for 111 consecutive weeks.

Head-to-head: 0-0

[4] Barbora Krejcikova vs. [WC] Wang Xiyu

 Hard to believe, but this is only the eighth major singles main draw for the 2021 French Open champion. Krejcikova has vast doubles experience – she’s won the past three mixed doubles titles in Melbourne (twice with Rajeev Ram) – but her two previous singles appearances here resulted in second-round defeats. Krejcikova lost a rousing final at the Sydney tennis Classic to Badosa and handled Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-0 in the first round. Former junior No.1 Wang, ranked No.139, took out qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova 7-5, 6-3.

Head-to-head: 1-0, Wang at the 2018 Burnie ITF W60 in three sets 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. Krejcikova was the event's No.2 seed and Wang a No.580-ranked qualifier who went on to lose to Marta Kostyuk in the quarterfinals.

[5] Maria Sakkari vs. [Q] Zheng Qinwen

Among the Top 10 seeds for the first time in a major, Sakkari was a 6-4, 7-6(2) winner over Tatjana Maria in the opening day here. She split two matches earlier in Adelaide. Zheng needed three sets to dispatch Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Head-to-head: 0-0

[8] Paula Badosa vs. [Q] Martina Trevisan

Badosa took care of Ajla Tomljanovic for the second time in a week, 6-4, 6-0. Trevisan was a 6-3, 6-3 winner over lucky loser Nao Hibino.

Head-to-head: 0-0

Photo by Jimmie48/WTA

[13] Naomi Osaka vs. Madison Brengle

Osaka, who has won two of the past three Australian Open titles, revealed a new weapon in her 6-3, 6-3 first-round win over Camila Osorio. “I’ve always practiced the backhand slice,” Osaka said, “but I never felt comfortable enough to use it in a match. I think just this offseason and then leading into this tournament I was having more fun with myself. Just trying not to really care if I make a mistake hitting the slice because I know that gradually it will become a better shot for me.” Brengle, meanwhile, won a wild match when Dayana Yastremska retired trailing 6-1, 0-6, 5-0. Brengle was credited with one winner – 30 fewer than Yastremska (who had 60 unforced errors). Brengle, however, won the all-important points battle 66-58.

Head-to-head: 1-0, Brengle, in a 2013 ITFW25 event in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Osaka turned 16 during the event.