Serena Williams of the US in action at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, January 17 2019. Picture: REUTERS/EUGENIE BOUCHARD
Serena Williams of the US in action at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, January 17 2019. Picture: REUTERS/EUGENIE BOUCHARD

Serena Williams stepped up her drive for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title on Thursday by swatting aside Eugenie Bouchard, as world No 1 Novak Djokovic won an emotional 2008 Australian Open final rematch against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

But women’s top seed Simona Halep and young gun Alexander Zverev had to dig deep to get into the third round on a day of epic battles.

US great Williams followed up her first round 49min romp by spending just 70 min on Rod Laver Arena to dispose of the Canadian 6-2 6-2.

“It wasn’t an easy match tonight,” said the 37-year-old, seeded just 16. “So I knew ‘Serena, you’ve got to come out hot, you’ve got to come out firing, she’s a really good player and I haven’t had many matches since last year’.”

Williams is bidding to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam crowns, and win an eighth in Australia, on her first return to Melbourne Park since lifting the trophy in 2017 while pregnant.

Serbian top seed Djokovic is also looking to make history by winning a seventh title. He was too good again for France’s Tsonga, who he beat in the 2008 final, rolling on 6-3 7-5 6-4.

“You could feel the tension on court at the beginning. We felt a lot of emotion and tried to play a great game,” said Djokovic as the memories of that tense final came flooding back.

In contrast, world No 1 Halep staggered through against American Sofia Kenin 6-3 6-7 (5/7) 6-4 — her second three-set test in a row.

“I have no idea how I won this, it’s so tough to explain what happened on court,” said the French Open champion, who now meets Venus Williams after the 38-year-old rolled back the years to beat France’s Alize Cornet.

In another titanic battle, Canadian Milos Raonic ousted 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in four tightly contested sets that all went to tie-breaks, while eighth seed Kei Nishikori was stretched to a draining five sets against Ivo Karlovic.

Seventh seed Dominic Thiem limped out when he retired while losing 7-5 6-4 2-0 to young Australian wildcard Alexei Popyrin.

Zverev, hailed as a flagbearer for the next generation, also struggled against veteran world No 36 Jeremy Chardy, before putting him away 7-6 (7/5) 6-4 5-7 6-7 (6/8) 6-1.

Amid rain delays and drawnout matches, Spain’s Garbine Muguruza and Britain’s Johanna Konta did not get on court until half-past midnight — the latest start to a match in the event’s history. Muguruza prevailed 6-4

6-7 7-5. US Open champion and fourth seed Naomi Osaka had it relatively easy, sweeping past Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek 6-2 6-4 with the roof closed on Margaret Court Arena due to rain.

The 21-year-old’s breakthrough at Flushing Meadow over Serena Williams last year made her a new standard bearer for tennis in Asia, and she is working hard on living up to the hype. “I thought I served alright. This was my first time playing her and I’m just happy to win, to be honest,” Osaka said after setting up a clash with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei.

In contrast, Asia’s top-ranked men’s player Nishikori needed an energy-sapping 3hr 48min to get past big-serving Croat Karlovic 6-3 7-6 (8/6) 5-7 5-7 7-6 (10/7) in humid conditions.