Serena Williams begins bid for 23rd grand slam title with quick win over Belinda Bencic
Serena Williams looks to bag a seventh Australian Open title. AP 

MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams is choosing her moments carefully. Deep contemplation on her recent engagement, she says, can wait until after the Australian Open.

Equality? The time to make a statement is now.

After starting her quest for a record 23rd Grand Slam title with a 6-4, 6-3 first-round win over Belinda Bencic on Tuesday, Williams walked into her news conferencing wearing a black shirt with the word "Equality" printed across the front.

It was still before midnight Monday in the United States, near the end of the federal holiday in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

"With today being Martin Luther King Day, it's important to spread the message of equality," Williams said. "Something he talked about a lot and he tried to spread a lot, is equality and rights for everyone."

Asked if she was concerned about the future of equality in the US, Williams said the issue is "a concern for just everyone in general."

"We want to make sure we always continue to move forward and always have the opportunity to have equal rights for all."

Williams became engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian during the break, and he was in the crowd watching her play at Rod Laver Arena. She has been asked repeatedly about her wedding plans since arriving in Australia. She gave a clearer time frame for discussion on that.

"February I'll start looking at the bigger picture of my life," she said. "But right now I'm just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about."

For five games in the second set, Serena Williams played almost flawless tennis. Then came the rustiness that tends to follow a lengthy layoff, giving Belinda Bencic a glimmer of hope.

Williams, after three double faults — including one on match point — and "some errors on key points," held on to improve her record in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments to 65-1.

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Rafael Nadal, also on the comeback from a couple of months on the sidelines following the US Open with an injured left wrist, had a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Florian Mayer to go one better than he did last year in Australia. He was upset in the first round by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco last year.

"Great. I'm happy to do an interview with you — last year, I didn't have the chance!" Nadal said in his on-court interview. "Very happy this year."

Third-seeded Milos Raonic, who reached the semifinals in Australia last year and the final at Wimbledon, opened with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Dustin Brown.

No. 24 Alexander Zverev held off Robin Haase, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 and No. 25 Gilles Simon beat US wild-card entry Michael Mmoh, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

Two women who had breakout seasons in 2016, and opened this season with tournament titles, advanced in straight sets.

US Open finalist Pliskova following her title win at the Brisbane International with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo. Johanna Konta, a surprise semifinalist in her debut at the Australian Open last year, won the Sydney International last week and opened at Melbourne Park with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens.

"I definitely love playing here. It's a dream," Konta said. "A lot has happened in the last year, but I'm just enjoying playing and getting better each day."

Lucie Safarova beat Yanina Wickmayer, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1, and will next play Williams.

Also progressing to the second round were No. 14 Elena Vesnina, No. 21 Caroline Garcia, No 28 Alize Cornet, No. 30 Ekaterina Makarova and Naomi Osaka of Japan beat Thai wild-card entry Luksika Kumkhum 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5.

 

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