MELBOURNE (AFP) - Six-time champion Novak Djokovic doused big-hitting Spaniard Fernando Verdasco to win the opening match of his Australian Open title defence in Melbourne on Tuesday.
The Serb second seed avoided a potential first-round exit against Verdasco, who knocked out Rafael Nadal in last year's first round, prevailing 6-1, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 in 2hr 20min on Rod Laver Arena.
"The second set went over an hour so of course when I saw the draw, I thought, 'This is going to be the only match I focus on,'" Djokovic said. "I could finish early in the tournament. But I managed to start well with great intensity. First and third sets went well, the second was a gamble. If he's on, you never know."
It was a tricky first-up match for the 12-time Grand Slam champion, who had lost to the Spaniard in four of their previous 13 meetings. But Djokovic's greater consistency in the pressure moments of an intense match won him the day.
Verdasco has not beaten the Serb for almost seven years, with his last triumph in the quarter-finals at Rome in 2010, although he held five match points in the pair's most recent meeting this month in Doha before Djokovic went on to win the tournament.
Djokovic is seeded to face Brisbane International winner Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round, powerful Austrian eighth seed Dominic Thiem in the quarters and Canada's big-serving third seed Milos Raonic in the semi-finals in the bottom half of the men's draw.
He can take outright ownership of the record for Australian titles if he wins for a seventh time.The Serb is tied with Australia's Roy Emerson on six.
Djokovic got off to a flyer with a double service break to clean up the opening set for the loss of just one game in 31 minutes.
Both players traded service breaks in four games before the second set went to a tie-breaker. Djokovic's greater consistency and Verdasco's erratic groundstrokes gave the Serb the tiebreaker and a 2-0 sets lead.
Djokovic cranked it up in the third set, breaking Verdasco's opening service which he carried through to win on his first match point.