Caroline Wozniacki has battled with her health since winning the Australian Open last year (Jewel SAMAD)

Melbourne (AFP) – Caroline Wozniacki fought back tears after launching her Australian Open defence with a convincing 6-3, 6-4 win over Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium on Monday.

The third seed won her maiden Slam at Melbourne Park last year but has since been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating auto-immune disease that has threatened to derail her career.

The Dane, who is bidding to become the first woman to defend the title since Victoria Azarenka in 2013, showed no outward sign of the illness as she eased past world number 52 Van Uytvanck in straight sets.

But her emotions came bubbling to the surface after the win as she reflected on returning to the venue where she made her career breakthrough after more than a decade of trying.

“It’s such a special feeling, I love playing back here,” she said.

“Last year I had some special memories and just to be able to be back out here on Rod Laver Arena is something extremely special and emotional.

“Now I’m going to start crying and I never cry.”

The 31-year-old has proved she can still compete despite he illness by winning in Beijing in October but her Melbourne campaign will test whether she can still cope with the gruelling two-week slog of a Grand Slam.

Wozniacki appeared to move freely despite energy-sapping conditions, engaging in long rallies with her dogged opponent who she described before the match as “tricky”.

Van Uytvanck is already a proven giant killer, eliminating last year’s defending Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in the second round in England.

Wozniacki was taking no chances, stepping up own aggression and attacking the net.

The Dane struggled to find her range with some returns and came close to going down a break in the opening game before serving her way out of trouble.

The turning point came when Van Uytvanck defended three break points in the sixth game but conceded a fourth with a double fault.

Wozniacki seized the opening and never looked back, serving out the set after 48 minutes as Van Uytvanck undermined her own cause with 18 double faults.

The title holder raced through the second set, showing some nerves as she squandered two match points but finally sealing the victory on the third.

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