Tennis: Plain sailing for Dimitrov and Raonic in Brisbane as Karolina Pliskova battles back to win opener

Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov (above) sailed past Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3, 6-4.
Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov (above) sailed past Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3, 6-4.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRISBANE (AFP) - Former champions Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov stormed into the second round of the season-opening Brisbane International tennis tournament with comprehensive wins on Monday (Dec 31).

Raonic, the 2016 champion, demolished Slovenia's Aljaz Bedene 6-0, 6-3 while Dimitrov, who won the following year, sailed past Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3, 6-4.

Both men have career-high world rankings of three, but Raonic and Dimitrov have each slipped over the past 12 months and sit at 18 and 19 respectively.

The big-serving Raonic fired down 18 aces in his win over Bedene and won 93 per cent of his first serves in a match that only lasted 47 minutes.

Dimitrov was also in complete control against 23-year-old Nishioka, the world No. 76.

"I felt I was actually hitting the ball quite all right for our first match of the year," he said.

"It was a good day overall. There were a few things that I would like to maybe improve on the next match, but overall I think it's off to a positive start." Dimitrov was troubled by an ankle injury towards the end of last season and barely played in the last few months of 2018.

But he said he used the time away from the court to re-evaluate his game.

"I just actually felt that in those months I've learned a lot about myself," he said.

"I learned things that I need to do better, things that I could improve off the court.

"So overall I actually felt that they were very successful months off the court."

There was drama for former women's world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, who said she refused to panic despite falling behind a set and a break to Yulia Putintseva in their first-round match.

The Czech appeared headed for an early exit when she stumbled against Putintseva late in the first set, but recovered from 2-0 down in the second to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the Pat Rafter Arena.

The 26-year-old said despite surrendering the first set, she never felt in any real trouble against Putintseva.

"Even though I was losing a set and a break in the second, I was still pretty positive, because I felt (even though) I'm missing, it's only small margins here and there," she said. "I just felt like the ball on the racquet felt pretty good."

Pliskova has a good record in Brisbane, winning in 2017 and reaching the semi-finals in 2018.

"I feel it's pretty fast, which is important for my game," Pliskova said. "I can hit some aces, which I did today, and if I play aggressive there is a chance that I am going to make a lot of points, so I feel good on this court for sure."

Australian wildcard Kimberly Birrell pulled off a massive upset when she stunned world No. 10 Daria Kasatkina in three sets. Birrell, 20, had only ever won one match on the main WTA tour but showed great composure to come from 3-5 down in the third set to win 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7/3) in three hours, six minutes.

"I was just trying to stay positive - I was just telling myself to just keep fighting and keep asking the questions," Birrell said. She will now play Lesia Tsurenko in the second round after the Ukrainian beat Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-0, 6-2.

Birrell's fellow countrywoman Destanee Aiava also moved into the second round with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) upset over Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic and will now play reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka.

Croatia's Donna Vekic was too strong for Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, winning 6-1, 6-2 to set up a second-round clash against sixth-seeded Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens, who downed Belgian Elise Mertens 6-2, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4.