MELBOURNE, Australia — Just as she was starting to show glimpses of returning to form, Venus Williams was let down by her serve and her concentration at crucial times and lost 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Ekaterina Makarova on Day 1 of the Australian Open.
The No. 22-seeded Makarova upset Serena Williams in the fourth round here in 2012, but was comprehensively outplayed in the first set against the elder of the Williams sisters Sunday, dropping serve three times.
Williams had chances in the second set, too, missing a break-point opportunity to go up 4-2, and then serving three consecutive double-faults after leading the ninth game 40-30 to surrender a crucial break.
The 33-year-old Williams, the second-oldest player in the tournament and seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, took some time out after the second set to change her zebra-striped dress and came back strongly, taking a 3-0 lead. But Makarova rallied again and Williams’ error count rose — she had 21 of her 56 unforced errors in the deciding set.
She has struggled with injuries and illness in recent seasons but reached the final of the WTA event at Auckland to open the year and said after arriving at Melbourne Park that she was feeling better than she had in years.
“The last 12 months I have had issues, but this year I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.”
That didn’t happen Sunday.
“My level was a little bit too up and down. Obviously my error count was a little high,” Williams said. “I have to give her a lot of credit, though, she was very determined, played hard.”
It was only the second time in 14 appearances that Williams lost in the first round at the Australian Open, where her best run remains a loss to her sister in the 2003 final.
“It was a really tough match to play someone like Venus in the first round, she is such a great player,” Makarova said. “At 3-0 down (in the final set), I decided I had to fight for every point. I just kept fighting and I turned around the match.”
Makarova will meet another American in the second round after qualifier Irina Falconi beat Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain 6-3, 6-1.
Two-time finalist Li Na beat Ana Konjuh of Croatia — the youngest player in the tournament — 6-2, 6-0 in 61 minutes in the first round to set up a meeting with another 16-year-old in the next after Belinda Bencic of Switzerland accounted for 43-year-old Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm in three sets. Date-Krumm was 27 years older than Bencic, the reigning French Open and Wimbledon junior champion.
Li, who lost in the finals to Victoria Azarenka last year and Kim Clijsters in 2011, has advanced to at least the fourth round every year since 2010.
“This is my favorite Grand Slam,” Li said. “Always looking forward to come back to Melbourne.”
No. 18-seeded Kirsten Flipkens, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year, was the first woman to advance when she beat Britain’s Laura Robson 6-3, 6-0. Flipkens made only four unforced errors against 32 for Robson, who was ranked 48th and knocked out 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in reaching the third round at last year’s Australian Open.
Also advancing on the women’s side were No. 9 Angelique Kerber and No. 31 Daniela Hantuchova.
Eighth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka was the first man through to the second round, advancing after just 15 games when Andrey Golubev retired with an injured left leg.
Wawrinka, who lost 12-10 in the fifth set to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round here last year in the longest Grand Slam match of 2013, was leading 6-4, 6-1 when his Kazakhstan rival quit after 65 minutes.
Wawrinka won the Chennai Open in India to start 2014 and is one of the big threats on the bottom half of the draw that includes three-time defending champion Djokovic and No. 3 David Ferrer.
Other men advancing included No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, No. 32 Ivan Dodig, who beat fellow Croatian Ivo Karlovic 7-6 (8), 6-3, 7-6 (4), and American Sam Querry, who defeated Santiago Giraldo of Colombia, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3).
“To win this match, in a tiebreak in the fourth set, gives me a ton of confidence,” said Querry, who had 47 winners and 24 aces.