Azarenka holds off Niculescu
Top seed Victoria Azarenka survived a second-set scare to see off Monica Niculescu in the first round of the Australian Open.
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Having cruised through the opener Azarenka's game inexplicably came off the rails in the second before she reasserted her superiority to win 6-1 6-4.
It seemed plain sailing for the defending champion on Rod Laver Arena as she raced into a 4-0 lead, seemingly at ease with her own game and that of her opponent, whose quirky sliced forehand marks her out from the rest of the crowd in the women's game.
A minor blip saw Niculescu break back but the Belarusian simply raised her level once again to take the first set in 31 minutes.
There appeared little chance of a Niculescu comeback but the Romanian surprised everyone inside Rod Laver Arena by swiftly establishing a 3-0 advantage. It almost became 4-0 but Azarenka clung grimly on to her serve by staving off two break points.
It proved a turning point as the world number one, roared on by close friend Redfoo from the band LMFAO, hit back.
She drew level at 3-3, prompting a frustrated Niculescu to crack her racket into the court - an act which earned her a warning from the chair umpire.
Azarenka then broke again for 5-4 as Niculescu's challenge waned and she served it out to advance.
It was her first appearance on RLA since her thrashing of Maria Sharapova in last year's final and Azarenka admitted she was pleased to have avoided an embarrassing return.
"It's great to be back, there were a lot of overwhelming emotions out there," she said.
"I started really well but the second set was a struggle. I am pleased to get through."
Azarenka had to pull out of the warm-up event in Brisbane due to an infected toe but she insists the injury is now behind her.
She added: "I am running without pain and am just trying to focus on the next two weeks."