Passion And Personality – And Some Big Upsets, Too – Day 1 At Roland Garros

Alexander Zverev advances to the third round at Roland Garros

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

There’s a lot of passion and personality that shines with each Grand Slam – and there’s been 201 Grand Slams in the Open Era dating back to 1968. For the next fifteen days, the stars and the up-and-comers – even the lucky losers – will be out on la terre battue of Roland Garros in Paris, pushing themselves through some of the most punishing and taxing tennis of the entire year.

In the culmination of the spring clay-court season, the 51st French Open began under summer-like, 28º-celsius conditions on Sunday, with the bottom half of both the men’s and women’s singles draws in action. It featured a pair of wins by the men’s and women’s fourth seeds, Grigor Dimitrov and Elina Svitolina, as well as a big upset of women’s defending champion Jelena Ostapenko. Meanwhile, men’s second seed Alexander Zverev was all business in winning his first-round match. Although Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams were absent from the opening day of competition, there were plenty of good matches for fans to get excited about – as well as a few upsets, too.

Here’s five matches from Day 1 worth remembering:

• The reigning women’s champion, Jelena Ostapenko, ranked fifth, came into this year’s French Open trying to become the first maiden slam-winner since Monica Seles to defend her title. The 20-year-old Latvian began her title defense against No. 66 Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine on Court Philippe Chatrier knowing she was “under pressure this time.” As it happened, Ostapenko lost – shockingly – to Kozlova, 7-5, 6-3. It was just the second time in the Open Era – and the first since Anastasia Myskina lost in 2005 – that the defending French Open champion has lost in the first round.

“I think it was a terrible day at the office,” Ostapenko said during her post-match press conference. “I played like 20 percent of what I can play. I felt I’m not myself today on the court.”

Ostapenko hit 13 double faults, won just 34 percent (14 of 41) second-serve points, and committed 48 unforced errors during her 1 hour and 34 minute match against Kozlova, who was playing in just her second French Open main draw. She was the featured cover story (“You’re Entering Ostapenko Country”) in the New York Times Sports Sunday sectionexpertly written by tennis columnist Christopher Clarey. Although Ostapenko is 17-13 this season, it’s been an uneven 2018 campaign on clay in which she’s now lost two matches in a row. She was a quarterfinalist at both Stuttgart and Rome, but also lost in the first round at Madrid.

• In the opening match of the tournament on Court Philippe Chatrier, fourth-seeded and reigning ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov faced an inexperienced opponent in lucky loser Mohamed Safwat of Egypt, a last-minute replacement for No. 89 Viktor Troicki of Serbia, who withdrew Sunday morning due to a lower-back injury. The 27-year-old Safwat, ranked No. 182, became the first Egyptian man to compete in a Grand Slam in singles since Tamer El Sawy at the 1996 U.S. Open, and just the fourth Egyptian overall. He played three rounds of qualifying last week, losing in the final round to Guido Andreozzi of Argentina. Then, as injuries mounted to the 128-player field, the Egyptian No. 1 Safwat became the seventh lucky loser placed into the main draw. (Later in the day, with No. 21 seed Nick Kyrgios withdrawing because of an elbow injury, an eighth lucky loser, Marco Trungelliti of Argentina, was summoned back to Paris – following a nine-hour drive by car from Barcelona – to be added to the draw.)

Meanwhile, Dimitrov’s four first-round departures in his seven French Open appearances highlight his “love-hate” relationship with clay in Paris, and the Bulgarian came in on a three-match losing streak following consecutive losses accrued in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. Fortunately, Dimitrov’s Grand Slam experience won out against the debutante Safwat, and he advanced easily, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (1).

Afterward, during an on-court interview, Dimitrov said he learned about 20 minutes before going on court that he would be playing Safwat instead of Troicki. “I had toto switch my mind set a little bit. However, I played Safwat many years ago on the junior circuit,” he said. Dimitrov controlled the match from the outset and won 88 percent (46 of 52) of his first-serve points and 24 of 24 opportunities at the net. He converted four of nine break-point chances against Safwat and hit 31 winners during the two hour and two minute match.

“It was a beautiful day and a great crowd,” said Dimitrov. “It’s great to be back here. I know the grounds well. I feel like I’m coming back to my roots. It’s nice to see friendly faces.”

• Fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, a 2015 and 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinalist, fell behind early in her match against No. 69 Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia. Then, she found her rhythm, got on track and won, 7-5, 6-3, in 1 hour and 29 minutes on Court Suzanne Lenglen. From 5-1 down, the Ukrainian recovered from a double break against her to even the first set. Then, she pulled away to win the set and, eventually, the match. Svitolina overcame 26 unforced errors – 19 of them in the opening set – by hitting 22 winners and converted five of 11 break points. It all added up to her 26th victory of the season.

“I just tried to play my game, to find a way to fight back,” Svitolina told Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim during an on-court interview after her win. “I had my chances and I took them. I’m glad I could win the first set because I thought that was the key to the match.” Asked what she thought was the most important thing she needs to do to win the tournament, Svitolina said, “I have to work really hard.”

• Making her 21st appearance at Roland Garros, No. 9 seed Venus Williams tried to make the most of her time on Court Suzanne Lenglen against No. 85 Qiang Wang of China. However, it quickly ran out before Williams knew what hit her. The 37-year-old American, who fell in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, lost to Wang, 6-4, 7-5, and became the first seeded casualty of the women’s draw. It was the first time in Venus’s 22-year career that she had lost in the first round of consecutive Slams. The first game of the match lasted 12 minutes before the patient Wang won on her sixth break-point opportunity. It didn’t get much better for Williams over the course of the 1 hour and 40 minute match. She committed 35 unforced errors and won just 40 percent (14 of 35) of her second-serve points. A clay-court novice, Wang kept her unforced errors to a minimum – hitting just 14 of them – and outpointed Williams 75-66.

• Second-seeded Alexander Zverev, twice a winner on clay this spring at Munich and Madrid, came into this year’s French Open having never beaten a Top 50 player in a Grand Slam. He’s also the first player outside of the Big Four (Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) to be a No. 2 seed since American Andy Roddick in 2005. While he can only oppose Nadal in the final, his path along the way will be filled with plenty of challenges. The 21-year-old German began his Grand Slam run against Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania and scored an easy 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 victory in just 69 minutes on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Zverev was impressive as he fired 11 service aces, won 27 of 31 (87%) first-serve points, and hit 29 winners against Berankis. He converted 7 of 12 break-point opportunities and outpointed Berankis 81-38 to advance to the next round.

“It’s always good to get a straight-sets win at the start of the tournament,” Zverev told the crowd after his victory. “I was very happy out there and I’m looking forward to the next one.”

News and noteworthy:

• Other men’s winners included: No. 10 seed Pablo Carreño Busta def. No. 147 qualifier Jozef Kovalik, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (5); No. 15 seed Lucas Pouille def. No. 53 Daniil Medvedev, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4; No. 19 seed Kei Nishikori def. No. 304 wild card Maxime Janvier, 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-3; No. 26 seed Damir Dzumur def. No. 114 qualifier Dennis Kudla, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2; No. 30 seed Fernando Verdasco def. No. 258 Yoshito Nishioka, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-5; No. 32 seed Gaël Monfils def. No. 302 wild card Elliot Benchetrit, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1.

• Other women’s winners included: Reigning U.S. Open champion and No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens def. No. 106 lucky loser Arantxa Rus, 6-2, 6-0; No. 98 Ulia Putintseva upset No. 22 seed Jo Konta, 6-4, 6-3; No. 25 seed Anna Kontaveit def. No. 101 Madison Brengle, 6-1, 4-6 6-2; No. 26 seed Barbora Strycova def. No. 96 Kurumi Nara, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4; No. 32 seed Alize Cornet def. No. 75 Sara Errani, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

• The Bryan Brothers – Bob and Mike – have been a fixture at Roland Garros and other Grand Slams for years. Unfortunately, Bob is nursing a hip injury he suffered earlier this month in Madrid. Thus, the Bryan’s streak of playing in 76 consecutive majors has ended. However, Mike will play in the men’s doubles draw with fellow American Sam Querrey.

• Francesca Schiavione, ranked 266th, is eight years removed from winning the 2010 French Open. The 37-year-old Italian, who was also a Roland Garros finalist in 2011, is nearing the end of her career – but she’s going out on her terms. On Friday, she earned her 18th Roland Garros main draw berth by winning her third qualifying draw match in three days. On Sunday, she was on Court 3 for a first-round match against No. 87 Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, which she lost 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) in 1 hour and 40 minutes. Until this week, Schiavone had gone 0-6 this year, bouncing back from injuries and a lack of confidence, but still passionate to play. “Trust me, it’s easier to play main draw than to play qualifying back to back,” Schiavone was quoted by the French Open’s website as saying. “Everyone is hungry to go into the main draw and eager to win and you don’t get days off. Honestly, it’s surreal for me.”

• Here’s one way of putting the careers of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in perspective. The King of Clay has won 10 of the past 50 French Opens played during the Open Era, which began in 1968. That’s one in five. Meanwhile, Federer has won 20 of the previous 200 Grand Slams in the Open Era. That’s one in 10. While there are five past Grand Slam winners in the men’s draw, there are 13 in the women’s draw.

What they’re saying:

• Defending men’s champion Rafael Nadal is full of confidence and motivation. As he seeks his 11th French Open trophy and 17th Grand Slam title, he said during his pre-tournament press conference that he wasn’t sure what it is about Roland Garros that bring out the best in him. The King of Clay owns a 79-2 lifetime win-loss record in the French Open, which makes him all but invincible. “Playing on clay, where I’ve had so much success, and also having to play best-of-five matches, all of that makes a difference,” said Nadal. After winning the Masters 1000 title at Rome a week ago, Nadal is back at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings. He begins defense of his French Open title on Court Philippe Chatrier Monday (fourth match from 11 a.m. local time) against lucky loser Simone Bolelli of Italy, who replaced Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov in the main draw on Saturday.

U.S. Davis Cup captain and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier weighed in on Nadal’s dominance in the French Open. “It’s Rafa’s tournament. Basically, he’s playing against two opponents in my opinion,” said Courier. “He’s playing against his health and he’s playing against his form from last year, which I thought he played the best he’s ever played here.”

• After needing hours of surgery and months of rehabilitation to repair her dominant left hand, suffered after she was wounded by a knife-wielding home invader, Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic returned to tennis at the 2017 French Open. Now, it’s been a year since her return to the sport. Although clay is not her dominant surface, the eighth-ranked Kvitova has enjoyed recent success on clay, including winning tournaments this spring in Prague and Madrid. She’s won four WTA tournaments in 2018, the most of any player on tour, and carries an 11-match winning streak into Roland Garros. On Monday, she faces No. 89 Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay in the first match on Court Philippe Chatrier. “Sometimes, it’s unreal for me, too, to sit and say, ‘O.K., I won four titles this year already,” she told The New York Times. “It’s a little bit weird. But that’s why I actually came back, not only to play tennis but to be better. And, yeah, I think I’m not playing bad tennis right now.”

• World No. 9 David Goffin of Belgium, interviewed by Reem Abulleil of the Dubai-based, said, “I try to intimidate on the court with my game, with the pressure I can put with my game, how I’m running on the court and not with the body or the face, or the way I’m looking.” The eighth-seeded Goffin, who stands a compact 180cm and weighs just 68kg, faced tour veteran Robin Haase of the Netherlands, ranked No. 44, in the final match of the day on Court 1. It lasted 2 hours and 52 minutes and finished in the twilight, but Goffin prevailed, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-0. He finished with 18 service aces, hit 69 winners to offset 40 unforced errors, broke Hasse 10 times in 17 tries, and outpointed his opponent 144-113.