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Serena swats doubts, Bencic aside to advance

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Two matches in four months, a dodgy knee and a sweltering day had doubts swirling around Serena Williams as she took center court for her first round match against talented Swiss Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

It took 79 minutes for the 35-year-old American to bat them all away, however, an emphatic 6-4 6-3 win at Rod Laver Arena providing a near-perfect launch of her bid to clinch a record 23rd grand slam title in the professional era.

Fiance Alexis Ohanian, a social media entrepreneur, was a spectator in the crowd but the wedding plans remain on hold for at least another match, and much longer if the American great has her way at Melbourne Park.

"I just kept saying that February I'll start looking at the bigger picture of my life," Williams, seeded second, told reporters. "But right now I'm just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about."

Former world number seven Bencic, who is expected to have a big future in the game, was supposed to give her opponent something to think about.

She had upset Williams in Toronto in 2015 and became the youngest player to do so in a completed match since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova felled her at the 2004 WTA Finals.

Bencic trailed 3-1 within minutes of a match that started in oppressive heat on Tuesday but battled back to 4-4 in the first set before Williams changed the game with a single shot.

Pumping her creaky knees to lunge for a wide backhand, Williams' sliced an improbable cross-court winner past the net-bound Bencic to hold serve.

It was a deflating moment for the 19-year-old, who had been on a roll, and she duly dropped the set when Williams fired a return that all but punched a hole through her racket.

From there, Williams roared to 5-0 in the second set with only a late slump stalling her victory march.

Bencic rallied to break Williams a second time and the American double-faulted on her first match point, drawing gasps from the crowd.

But Williams made no mistake with her second, closing it out with a thumping forehand volley to set up a clash against Czech Lucie Safarova.

Safarova, a former world number five and French Open finalist, might present a tough test in the second round but after the way she brushed Bencic aside few would bet against Williams ploughing on to the second week.

Williams revealed in her post-match media conference that she had been devastated to learn of British singer George Michael's death in December.

It prompted a reporter to ask which was her favorite song from the former pop idol.

Fittingly, she responded: "Faith."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)