History Made On Roland Garros Opening Day

Jannik Sinner plays under closed roof (photo: Corrine Dubreil/FFT)

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

History was made as the later-than-usual pandemic edition of the French Open began against a backdrop of autumn – and with the lights turned on – amid a cold and rainy Sunday in Paris.

The very first session on the very first day of this year’s Roland Garros, the new roof that covers the majestically rebuilt Court Phillip-Chatrier – the jewel of Stade Roland Garros – was put to good use. That’s because from the opening match, which paired the youngest player in the men’s draw, Italian 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, against venerable No. 11 seed David Goffin of Belgium, the roof was closed due to the weather conditions permeating Paris, namely winter-like temperatures and intermittent rain. Sinner won 7-5, 6-0, 6-3.

Definitely, there’s a different atmosphere being created by the weather and the roof this year, playing from late September to early October as opposed to the usual late May to early June. It’s affecting the outside temperatures and the amount of available daylight, too. The French Open is the last Grand Slam to get a retractable roof installed on its main stadium. That’s partially because tennis can be played in light rain on a clay-court surface, but also because the French Tennis Federation (FFT) dragged its feet and delayed modernizing its show courts, including the installation of a roof and lights that would allow for night sessions to be played. (Night sessions are due to be implemented in 2021.)

“We were behind, but the whole process took so long,” French Open tournament director Guy Forget told The New York Times. “But finally we have it, and we will probably have another one a few years down the road.”

Each of the other three Grand Slams – the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open – have at least two stadiums with roofs. At least now, with Chatrier finally covered, it means that rain or shine, the show will go on – and there’s plenty of rain predicted this week.

On the plus side, with the roof closed Sunday, it meant the first indoor red clay match at a major took place. It meant the FFT got a quick return on its investment. Say what you will, but with the chapeau on, quite frankly, it looked good – even if it’s more canopy than true roof and still lets the chilly outside air inside. Indeed, it was chilly inside – and everyone, players, coaches and fans were all bundled up like it was winter instead of the second week of autumn.

World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep, who won the first women’s match played with the roof closed, a 6-4, 6-0 victory over Sara Sorribes Tormo, said, “The rain didn’t stop us at all. It was pretty cold, because it’s cold outside. But also, we were very away from the wind so we could play normally. 

“It was really nice to be able to play on the court, even if it was a little bit heavy because of the weather. It was good conditions to play in this rainy day.”

Among the highlights from Opening Day at Roland Garros:

Wawrinka blasts past Murray in straight sets

The last time Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray hooked up in the French Open, it was the 2017 semifinals and they battled for five sets over four and one-half hours, won by the Swiss No. 2, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1. Now, three years later, Wawrinka bludgeoned his way through a straight-set win over the surgically-repaired Murray, sporting a new hip that made this year’s match even possible.

The heavyweight Wawrinka out-hit the counter-punching Murray and, at times it was painful to watch. But give the 16th seed Wawrinka his due. His 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Murray in a battle of three-time Grand Slam champions was sublime and masterful. It marked the 13th time in 16 French Open appearances that Wawrinka has advanced to the second round.

Sunday evening’s skirmish on Chatrier was the 21st time Wawrinka and Murray had faced each other. It also marked 21 years since two Grand Slam champions had met in the first round of a men’s singles draw at the French Open since Michael Chang and Yevgeny Kafelnikov collided in 1999. Despite Sunday’s thrashing, Murray still leads the head-to-head series 12-9, but Wawrinka has won five of the six meetings on clay and he’s 4-3 in majors against the Briton.

“I know I can be aggressive,” the 2015 Roland Garros champion Wawrinka said following his one hour and 37-minute victory. “I know I can put some heavy balls out there and I can keep playing heavy balls each ball. That’s important, the way I’m playing, focusing on keeping my game. I’m happy with it. …

“We actually practiced the first day I arrived here, and it was a tough practice. So, I was expecting a tough match. I was really focused, with a champion like Andy, even if the scoreboard is only one side like today, you have to keep focus. You never know what can happen.”

Wawrinka fired nine aces, thanks to an average first-service speed of 111 miles per hour. He hit 42 winners to 27 unforced errors and broke Murray’s serve six times in eight tries. Murray managed just two aces, placed only 36 percent of his first serves in play, did not break Wawrinka in three opportunities, and finished with 26 unforced errors.

“Obviously, an extremely tough draw,” said the 111th-ranked Murray, who received a wild card entry into the main draw. “Even if I played very well, you know, it would have been no guarantees that I win that match.

“But I also didn’t play well. I served like under 40 percent first serves in the court, which that’s just not good enough, really, against anyone, and especially someone as good as Stan.”

When he was asked if it would be easy to rationalize a loss like Sunday’s, Murray said: “I need to have a long, hard think about it. It’s not for me the sort of match I would just brush aside and not give any thought to.

“There is obviously reasons behind a performance kind of like that. You know, I think that’s probably in terms of scoreline, I might be wrong, but I think that’s the worst defeat maybe of my career in a Grand Slam.”

First winner – Kamilla Rakhimova

Russian qualifier Kamilla Rakhimova, just 19 and making her Grand Slam main draw debut, needed only 64 minutes to beat American Shelby Rogers, 6-2, 6-3, on Court 11, to become the first French Open main draw winner. Rogers was a quarterfinalist at the US Open two weeks ago. As Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim tweeted, “on the plus side, she’ll return to Charleston, warmer climes.”

First seed out – David Goffin

No. 11 seed David Goffin of Belgium, bounced in the first round by talented Italian teen Jannik Sinner, was asked what his biggest challenge this year has been: “For me it’s the motivation. You feel like kind of worried all the time. Before every tournament you don’t know if there will be, like, a wrong test or you will be positive, negative.” Goffin said he felt “a little bit empty today.”

It’s only the weather, right?

“It’s ridiculous. It’s too cold. What’s the point? Sitting here like ducks,” argued No. 10 seed and US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka, sitting and waiting under an umbrella on Court Suzanne Lenglen Sunday morning. Three games into her match with 86th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, Azarenka put her foot down on the cold, wet conditions permeating Roland Garros. She and Kovinic did something nobody expected: they walked off the court in protest.

When the match finally resumed, the conditions hadn’t improved much – it was still only about 13Cº and quite cloudy. Azarenka won 6-1, 6-2 in just 61 minutes. She did it playing bundled up, wearing leggings and a long-sleeved Nike windbreaker. She would have fit right in dressed as a Belarusian Winter Olympian.

First Grand Slam win for Korda

The way everything is going for 211th-ranked qualifier Sebastian Korda, he couldn’t be happier. Sunday on Court 9, the American-born son of 1992 French Open finalist Petr Korda, captured his first major win playing in his second Grand Slam – and it was his first ATP Tour triumph, too. With his 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over 97th-ranked Italian veteran Andreas Seppi, Korda’s live ranking shot up into the Top 200. Indeed, not a bad day in Paris.

“It was freezing, raining and windy – not a good combo for me,” Korda, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., told Tennis Channel‘s Steve Weissman after his win, during a televised interview. “It was an unbelievable moment for me and I’m super happy to get through it.

“I started playing tennis a lot later than everyone else. I didn’t play my first ITF Junior tournament until I was 15. The way everything is going, I’m happy.”

Korda, who reached the Roland Garros main draw by winning three qualifying matches last week, let out a big roar that was loud enough it could be heard inside Philippe Chatrier. He said it represented “a lot of time and a lot of pain. I worked my butt off during the break and my tennis is showing for it now.”

Venus Williams: Another early loss in a major

At age 40, Venus Williams is the oldest competitor in the French Open women’s singles draw — and it’s her 23rd appearance at Roland Garros. Six years ago, Williams faced Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia. Like in 2014, Schmiedlova defeated the former Roland Garros finalist in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, in two hours and six minutes on Court Simonne Mathieu Sunday afternoon. The win snapped a 12-match Grand Slam losing streak for the 161st-ranked Schmiedlova, who received a direct main-draw berth due to a special ranking after missing a considerable portion of 2019 due to injury. It was her third straight win over the future Hall of Famer and second this year.

For the seven-time Grand Slam champion Williams, whose best showing in Paris was reaching the finals in 2002 but has not reached the quarterfinals since 2006, it meant she lost in the first round in each of the three majors this year – all in straight sets.

“That’s never a goal, obviously, so it’s really just about going back and re-evaluating and moving on as quick as possible,” said Williams, whose 2020 record dropped to 1-8 including a five-match losing streak.

“It’s been a very long year of quarantine. Now, I’ll get to rest. So, I’m look forward to that,” she said smiling.

Happy 29th Birthday, Simona Halep

Passer des coups

• Austrian qualifier Jurij Rodionov, ranked 159th, closed out the biggest win of his career by recovering from two sets down to beat 63rd-ranked French veteran Jeremy Chardy, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 10-8. The 21-year-old Rodionov saved one match point, served for the match three times and needed seven match points to close out his first Grand Slam win that was also his first ATP Tour-level win, too – all in four hours and 36 minutes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.

• It was very surreal to watch on TV the Johanna Konta-Coco Gauff first round match on Court Suzanne-Lenglen that followed the Rodionov-Chardy clash. Konta was a Roland Garros semifinalist last year and Gauff has been impressive in her first year of playing Grand Slam main draws. At age 16, the American teen prodigy is just two years removed from winning the 2018 French Open junior girls’ title. What made this match so unusual was its atmosphere. Normally, it would have packed any of the Roland Garros show courts. Because of Covid-19 restrictions on the number of fans able to attend this year’s tournament – just 1,000 spectators per day total – there were barely any fans attending Konta-Gauff at all, won by Coco 6-3, 6-3 in her French Open main draw debut. It was her fourth Top 20 win and she closed it by winning six of the last seven games. Of course, the match was played mostly under lights after dark and it was outside without the benefit of a roof, where intermittent rain fell.

• Canadian wild card Eugene Bouchard, a recent finalist at Istanbul, won her first Roland Garros main draw match since 2017. The 167th-ranked Montreal native beat No. 113 Anna Kalinskaya of Russia, 6-4, 6-4, to advance to a second-round match against Australia’s Daria Gavrilova.

• Nothing special, you say, about No. 130 Nadia Podoroska‘s 54-minute win over Belgium’s Greet Minnen, 6-2, 6-1, on Court 9? How about this. It’s the first win for an Argentine woman in a Grand Slam main draw since Paula Ormaechea at Roland Garros in 2014, where she reached the third round. Podoroska is also the first Argentine woman featured in a Grand Slam main draw since Ormaechea at the 2014 US Open.

• After Dan Evans lost a tough five-setter to Kei Nishikori, he told British tennis journalist Jonathan Pinfield that “some of those balls we were using, you wouldn’t give to a dog to chew.” I guess that tells you what he thought about the playing conditions he faced during his three-hour 49-minute, 1-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 1-6, 6-4 loss on Court 14. No word whether Evans will take home any mementos for his pet dogs.