MELBOURNE: Serena Williams said simply being herself was the key to sweeping past Lucie Safarova and into the Australian Open third round on Thursday, as she kept her Grand Slam record bid firmly on track.
The powerhouse American, chasing her 23rd major title and seventh in Melbourne, was in the zone to win 6-3, 6-4 on Rod Laver Arena, just hours after fellow second seed Novak Djokovic was sensationally knocked out of the men’s draw.
The world number two next faces fellow American Nicole Gibbs, with a potential quarter-final encounter with in-form Briton Johanna Konta or sixth seed Dominika Cibulkova looming.
As well as a seventh Australian title, Williams is chasing an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam trophy and she wasn’t about to lose to Safarova, whom she had beaten in all nine of their previous encounters.
The most recent was the 2015 French Open final.
“The last time we played was in the final of a Grand Slam… it wasn’t easy. I’m really happy to have gotten through,” she said, after celebrating by wagging her lone index finger in the air, a sign she still sees herself as number one.
“That was a great performance. I played well. She’s a former top 10 player. She’s not someone you see in a second-round match. She never gives up.
“So I knew that I wanted to jump out in the lead. I knew that I wanted to just be Serena. That’s what I’m good at doing, is being Serena. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Asked what “Being Serena” entailed, she replied: “It’s being a champion, but not only by the way I play, but the things I do off the court as well.
“I know that being Serena on the court is in a way being calm, which is in my name, but always having that fire as well. I think, most of all, being confident.”
– Fighting streak –
Despite Williams being favourite the Czech, 29, has a fighting streak, as seen in the first round when she saved nine match points before beating Yanina Wickmayer.
Williams, who lost the top ranking to Angelique Kerber last year as well as the Melbourne final, said after beating Belinda Bencic in the first round that she had nothing to lose, and her carefree attitude came to the fore.
She barely needed to get out of first gear in the opening set as a familiar scenario unfolded, with the 35-year-old firing down six aces but also 14 unforced errors.
Break points saved at 2-2 tipped the set in her favour and she took control and awaited her opportunity to pounce, which came in the eighth game.
With a break to her name, she rammed home the advantage to take the first set in 41 minutes.
The newly-engaged 35-year-old, playing her first Grand Slam since the 2013 Australian Open while not top seed, saved two break points on her opening service game in the second set and another in game six.
Riding her luck, she began to turn up the heat on Safarova and went 5-3 in front when the Czech double-faulted on break point as the pressure got to her.
With the finish line in sight, there was no stopping her as she completed a routine victory.
In her 17th Australian Open, Williams is attempting to break Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, with Melbourne Park a happy hunting ground.
She claimed her first Australian Open title way back in 2003, beating elder sister Venus in the final.