Red Dirt Fortnight Begins With Stunning Upset at Roland Garros

Angelique Kerber

PARIS, May 26, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

There’s always a lot of passion and personality that gleams with each new Grand Slam – and there’s been more than 200 Grand Slams contested in the Open Era dating back to 1968. Today through June 8, when the women’s champion is crowned, the stars and the up-and-comers of women’s tennis 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 52st French Open began under partly-sunny skies and 18º-celsius conditions on Sunday, with the bottom half of the women’s singles draw on court. It featured World No. 5 Angelique Kerber commencing action on the newly-reconstructed Court Philippe Chatrier – and losing to a fearless and confident 18-year-old – and the debut of the new Court Simonne Mathieu starring 2016 champion and current World No. 19 Garbiñe Muguruza.

There were plenty of good matches early on the schedule for fans to get excited about on the first day of the French fortnight – as well as a huge major upset, too.

Kerber goes down fast in first round

No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber, who came in with hopes of completing a career Grand Slam, became the first major casualty at the French Open – and it happened in the opening match on Court Philippe Chatrier. The German went out quickly and easily in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, to No. 81 Anastasia Potapova, a fearless, former junior champion from Saratov, Russia. In garnering her first Top 10 win, the 18-year-old Potapova earned just her second Grand Slam win while playing in only her third Grand Slam main draw.

Upon winning match point, Potapova dropped to her knees on the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier and covered her face with her hands in celebration. Somewhere underneath, there was a big smile beaming. Her confidence allowed her to beat Kerber “the player” and not be intimated by Kerber “the name.”

After the match, Potapova, who said her phone “is exploding right now,” was asked how it felt to play her first match on the largest court at Stade Roland Garros. She said, “You know, I was trying to keep some focus on me, on myself, how I’m playing, how I’m running. Not trying to think a lot about the court, about first round, about Kerber, because of course she’s a great player. But, you know, I’m here to play my best. That’s what I did.

“I live for this win, for these emotions, for these moments. I’m going to do everything to live it through again and again and again.”

Kerber’s loss in just one hour and 13 minutes was hardly unexpected, given her recent ankle injury coupled with her career form on clay. Still, it sent a shock across Roland Garros. A year ago, the native of Bremen reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and then went on to win Wimbledon. However, this year, Kerber was not at full strength – she hadn’t played since withdrawing at Madrid earlier this month and was appearing on clay for just the fifth time – and didn’t look comfortable on court, according to Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin.

“Her movement wasn’t quite there; that’s a major point of her game,” said Rubin. “Potapova hit winners left and right and took advantage of that. That’s not easy to do when you’re inexperienced. It’s a great win for her.”

Playing confidently and aggressively throughout, the 5-foot-7 (1.75 m) Potapova won 82 percent (23 of 28) of her first-serve points and hit 28 winners, while Kerber’s numbers paled in comparison: 55 percent (20 of 36) first-serve points and just 16 winners. Both committed 21 unforced errors. With plenty of opportunities, Potapova took advantage of six service breaks and outpointed Kerber 65-54.

After arriving with low expectations, Kerber said “I’m grateful to being here right now. Two weeks ago I was not even able to walk really good.” After the match, she admitted: “Of course, I’m disappointed, but I tried everything the last two weeks to be here to playing a match, and, I mean, I was happy about the process the last days. But at the end, I didn’t have really matches before. I couldn’t practice very good. So, yeah, at the end I really don’t have too much expectation for this tournament. … The clay season is over now for me. Yeah, I’m happy about that. I can now look forward to playing on grass.”

Muguruza christens new court with win

No. 19 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, the former World No. 1 who won the 2016 championship, came from behind to beat American Taylor Townsend, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, in one hour and 59 minutes. It was the debut match on Court Simonne Mathieu, a new 5,000-seat sunken court that’s located in Jardin des Serres D’Auteuil Botanical Garden and surrounded by four greenhouses showcasing rare plants from America, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

Muguruza, who is one of 27 women in the Open Era to win multiple Grand Slam titles, came in having gone out in the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open and in the second round at last year’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Coming into Roland Garros, she had been underperforming. However, against the 98th-ranked Townsend, Muguruza controlled the net, winning 25 of 32 opportunities, and she took advantage of five breaks of the American’s serve. The Spaniard finished with 37 winners – 23 of them in the final two sets – and hit 29 unforced errors. She outpointed her opponent 92 to 76.

“I know it was going to be a challenge no matter who my opponent was. We always know that the first rounds are difficult. It’s the first match of a Grand Slam, it’s a little adventure. Also, playing Taylor, she had a different style of game, a very lefty player. Super talented. So, it took me a while to feel better in the court, to get the rhythm … to have a game plan. It was a tough match. I’m happy to go through.”

In the next round, Muguruza will face No. 172 Johanna Larsson of Sweden, who advanced over No. 74 Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, 6-3, 6-4.

Around Roland Garros

• Ons Jabeur’s 2019 French Open lasted one hour and three minutes. The 55th-ranked Tunisian – the highest-ranked Arab – lost in the first round today to No. 31 seed Petra Martic of Croatia, 6-1, 6-2, and it was the first completed match in the entire draw – women’s or men’s. Martic, who won a WTA International clay-court event last month in Istanbul, capitalized on six breaks of Jabeur’s serve to advance. Two years ago, Jabeur made headlines by being the first Tunisian and Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam.

• No. 38 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic advanced to meet upset winner Anastasia Potapova of Russia after beating No. 56 Wang Yafan of China, 6-4, 6-3 in one hour and 21 minutes. Vondrousova hit 22 winners and caused Wang into committing 28 unforced errors.

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 Naomi Osaka, was asked about her next major milestone during Friday’s media day. She said: “Roland Garros. That’s what I’m dreaming about right now. If you’re talking about longer goals, of course I haven’t won Wimbledon yet either, and it would be really cool to win everything in one year. The Olympics are coming up, too. We’re not forgetting about that.”

• Defending champion Simona Halep was asked if she’s too happy to play her best tennis, again: “Probably, but I am happy to be in this position, I have to admit this. I will try to do the things (I did) as a kid, enjoying the time. I wanted this badly, and I wanted so much that now having it, I just want to be happy and to smile. Yesterday when I had the chance to touch the trophy again, I wanted to take it home, but I was not able to do that. … I’m still motivated because my career doesn’t stay (still) in a Grand Slam or ranking. I play tennis because I love playing tennis. I’m here because I love the life of an athlete. I like to make friends. I like to spend time with people, and now I see the things differently so I am discovering a different life on tour.”