Ahn Pushes Serena, But Williams Wins With Confidence

Serena Williams (courtesy Roland Garros video)

WASHINGTON, September 29, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Sixth seed Serena Williams is an incredible 75-1 in major first rounds following her 7-6 (2), 6-0 first-round win over 102nd-ranked American Kristie Ahn on Monday. The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion’s only first-round Grand Slam loss came in the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano of France, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

This year, Williams came to Paris willing to adjust, both on and off the court. Her pursuit of an elusive 24th Grand Slam singles title that would tie her with Margaret Court for first all-time keeps her motivated and coming back for more. Even though Williams has lost four Grand Slam finals since returning from maternity leave two years ago, the just-turned 39-year-old hasn’t lost any of her hunger for tennis.

Against Ahn, the ninth-ranked Williams was pushed early and broken twice, including in an 18-point third game, and the first set was decided by a tie-break. Then, Williams regrouped nicely and won the second set at love to advance to the next round against No. 157 Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, in a rematch of her recent US Open quarterfinal. (Pironkova beat No. 93 Andrea Petkovic of Germany, 6-3, 6-3 on Monday.)

While the first set of the Williams-Ahn match included 102 points and took one hour and 12 minutes to complete, the second set was more vintage Williams – and she needed just 29 minutes to finish out her straight-set victory.

“I started out really strong in the first game and I ended up in a tie-break,” said Williams, during an on-court interview with Tennis Channel‘s Jon Wertheim. “So, I was glad to get through that because she was up a break a couple of times. She played really well, to be honest.”

Williams finished with 11 aces, won 70 percent of her first-serve points, converted five of 14 break-point opportunities and hit 26 winners that more than made up for her 36 unforced errors. She outpointed Ahn 83-61. It was her first match on clay in 485 days.

Williams, who usually plays in front of large, sellout crowds at Grand Slams, was asked about playing in front of so few fans this year at Roland Garros. “It’s OK,” she said. “You have to be prepared for everything. Right now, that’s what life is. I think it’s for the best. Whatever’s for the best I’m prepared for it.” When she was asked by Wertheim what her biggest personal challenge in 2020 has been, Williams said: “I don’t know, there’s been so much happening in the world. It’s been tough, it’s been wild. It’s been just an interesting year.”

Later, during her virtual press conference, Williams was asked what the biggest difference between the way she played in the first and second sets. “The biggest difference was just confidence,” she said. “I just need to play with more confidence, like I’m Serena.

“So that was it. I just started playing like that. And I love the clay and I started playing like it, opening the court and moving and sliding. …

“I think for me, I have put so much perfectionist into my habits that if it’s not perfect, then it’s not enough for me. That is something I have been working on. … So, I feel like that has been what I needed to just deal with, just understand that my level of greatness is sometimes crazy high and a win is a win.”

Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport, said: “I think Serena did a fantastic job of figuring out how she wanted to play in these conditions, which is to build points by using angles more.

“The important thing for Serena is she got better as this match went on. She got out of there in straight sets. She had to work in the first set, but you never got the sense she was uncomfortable or not playing that well. Serena was a little rusty because she hasn’t played a clay-court match in 15 months. … There’s a lot of things going on with this tournament: the roof, the balls and Serena started to get accustomed to them as the match wore on.”

Thiem accepts challenge to help sustain tennis popularity

During Dominic Thiem‘s virtual press conference following his 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 first-round win over Marin Cilic, the new US Open men’s champion was asked if once the Big Three of men’s tennis – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadaland Novak Djokovic – leaves the sport, can the next generation of stars, such as him, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, help sustain the worldwide popularity of tennis?

“Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, they are like global superstars and we are not yet. I guess we have to build it up like they did,” said Thiem.

“I think there is a chance to do it, but it comes automatically with a lot of success. That’s our challenge to do.

“But I think that we are not going to have a problem, because for me, like the new generation, or also my generation, they are super-good characters, interesting characters, a lot of star potential there. 

“The only thing what we are missing is the huge success. But I guess that there are less viewers or less interest if Roger, Rafa and Novak are not there much. It’s normal, because as I said, they are global superstars, and I hope we are on the way there.”

Wilander causes stir over Murray comments

Eurosport‘s Mats Wilander, a three-time Roland Garros champion (1982, ’85, ’88) , generated a lot of criticism for some pointed remarks he made following Andy Murray‘s 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 loss to Stan Wawrinka on Sunday, one of the Briton’s worst losses at a major. It was the first time since 2006 that Murray had lost in the first round of the French Open.

While the 110th-ranked Murray was awarded a wild card to compete in Paris, Wilander said he believes that Murray is being selfish in taking the place of younger players and is only “thinking of himself.”

Following Sunday’s broadcast of the Murray-Wawrinka match on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Wilander said:

“I worry about Andy Murray. I would love to hear him say why he is out there, giving us a false sense of hope that he going to come back one day.

“I keep getting a little bit disappointed, is it his right to be out there doing that? Why? I did it and I shouldn’t have, it was the biggest mistake I did in my career. I think Andy Murray needs to stop thinking of himself and start thinking about who he was. Does he have a right to be out there taking wildcards from the young players?

“I was 26 when I first retired, came back at 28, played until 32 and there was couple of years I played and should not have taken up the space where there were younger, more motivated players who were better than what I was.

“It’s tough to quit, for sure. By giving us all hope by playing, it’s just not right. I love the fact that he is back and trying. Hopefully he’ll figure out why he’s doing it.”

In his virtual press conference Sunday evening, Murray, 33, admitted he will be challenged to be the same player he was when he won three Grand Slams. “It’s going to be difficult for me to play the same level as I did before,” he said. “I’m 33 now and I was ranked No. 1 in the world, so it’s difficult with all the issues that I have had. But I’ll keep going. Let’s see. Let’s see what the next few months holds, and I reckon I won’t play a match like that between now and the end of the year.”

Wilander’s Eurosport colleague Alex Corretja, a former Murray coach, said: “I totally understand that Andy is trying to get back to his best. I’m sure he knows it will be very difficult, but you need to give him the chance to see if he at least feels better on the court, no matter if he wins slams again or not, and try to enjoy the rest of his career.”

By the numbers

There were 459 points played between 71st-ranked Corentin Moutet of France and 157th-ranked Italian qualifer Lorenzo Giustino on Court 14 in what became the longest Roland Garros match in 16 years. The two unseeded competitors played for six hours and five minutes – roughly the same amount of time it takes to fly from New York to Paris – and with no fifth-set tiebreak, it meant first to win the ultimate set by two games. And guess what? The fifth set took three hours – alone – to play the 18-16 set, which was won by Giustino, who won the memorable match 0-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3), 2-6, 18-16, for both his first Grand Slam and first tour-level win.

The Roland Garros record remains six hours and 33 minutes set in a 2004 first-round match between Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement, both from France, played over two days and won by Santoro, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 3-6, 16-14.

Giustino hit 57 winners, made 96 unforced errors, broke Moutet nine times in 14 tries and, yet, was outpointed 242-217. Moutet finished with 88 winners and committed 88 unforced errors. He converted 13 of 25 break points. Giustino next faces 12th seed Diego Schwartzman, whose 6-0, 6-1, 6-3 win over Miomir Kecmanovic on Sunday in a more conventional one hour and 47 minutes advanced him to the second round for the six time in seven appearances.

“Well, it means a lot for me,” said Giustino. “I think I improve a lot in these last two years. I mean, I believe in myself that I can make something better than I was before.”

• Former French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza, seeded 11th, survived the longest women’s match of the first two days of this year’s Roland Garros after she came back to beat Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 on Court Simonne-Mathieu to move into the second round. It took Muguruza three hours and one minute to pull out a victory after she trailed 3-0 in the deciding set. The length of the match eclipsed the two-hour and 30-minute three set win by IrinaCamelia Begu over Jil Teichmann on Sunday.

“Especially in first rounds, you can always have surprises. You can always, you know, not feel great,” said Muguruza after her win that advanced her to face No. 68 Kristyna Pliskova. “Then your opponent, you know what? She’s playing great and she wants it as much as you, and you’re out.”

• Iga Swiatek‘s first direct entry into a Grand Slam was a year ago at the 2019 French Open, where she advanced to the round of 16 before losing to Simona Halep. The Polish 19-year-old was one of three teenagers to reach the R16, along with American Amanda Anisomova and finalist Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic. On Monday, Swiatek ousted the 15th seed Vondrousova in the first round with a 6-1, 6-2 victory in 63 minutes in back of 23 winners. It was Swiatek’s second Top 20 win this year – and both have come at major tournaments.

“I don’t really know what I would do better,” said Vondrousova afterward. “I think she was so good today, she didn’t give me much chances, so I think she was just better.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime would just assume forget his 2020 clay season. Two weeks ago, the 22nd-ranked lost in the first round at Rome and last week bowed in Hamburg in the second round. This week, he just went out in the first week at Roland Garros, losing 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 to Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka. The 19th seed Auger-Aliassime committed 58 unforced errors during the two hour and 32-minute loss on Court 9. Afterward, in press, he reflected on his latest loss:

“Today was tough for me overall, what [Nishioka] was bringing in the match. … I knew him, knew it was going to be tough to go through him, going to put a lot of balls back. Obviously, the conditions were not best for me. 

“I’m going to rest now, take some time and go back to training, see what I can learn and improve from these last few matches.”

Renata Zarazua, a 184th-ranked qualifier from Mexico had a history-making Monday to remember. The diminutive, 22-year-old Mexico City native, who reached her first Roland Garros main draw after winning three qualifying matches last week, became the first Mexican woman to win a main draw match at the French Open since 1994. It was also the first Grand Slam win by any Mexican woman since the 2000 Australian Open. On Court 9, Zarazua prevailed over 17-year-old French wild card Elsa Jacquemont, 6-1, 6-2, in 64 minutes on the strength of 23 winners and five breaks of her opponent’s serve.

Passer des coups

• Sara Errani‘s first Grand Slam main draw match since Roland Garros 2018 was an emphatic 6-2, 6-1 victory over Monica Puig of Puerto Rico. The Italian qualifier, ranked 150th, beat the 2016 Olympic champion in just 53 minutes. Although she hit just five winners, she only made five unforced errors, while the 98th-ranked Puig, who has played just three matches this year and lost all of them, committed 34 unforced errors. Next for Errani is fifth seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who advanced with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win over 20-year-old Ukrainian Katarina Zavatska. Bertens is 0-5 lifetime against Errani. It will be their first meeting since the 2016 Olympics.

• Unseeded Jack Sock is having a love affair with clay. After winning three straight qualifying draw matches to get into the 128-player main draw, Sock beat fellow American big-man Reilly Opelka, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, on Monday to advance to a second-round match-up with third seed Dominic Thiem, who has reached the last two Roland Garros finals. Sock is one of seven American men to reach the second round. The others: No. 27 seed Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda, No. 21 seed John Isner, Tennys Sandgren and Mackenzie McDonald.

• Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics, ranked 63rd, upset fourth seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-1 on Court Suzanne-Lenglen in three hours and 17 minutes. Fucsovics entered Monday evening’s first-round tussle 0-14 lifetime against Top 10 opponents. The 24-year-old World No. 5 Medvedev, who came to Paris after losing in the first round at Hamburg last week, has lost his opening match in all four of his French Open appearances.

• There were five men’s first round matches on Monday that went the five-set distance. In addition to the Giustino-Moutet thriller, other five-set winners were: Sandgren, Lorenzo Sonego, Daniel Elahi Galan and Jan-Lennard Struff.

What they’re saying

• No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova, who missed last year’s French Open with an arm injury, began this year’s fortnight run with a 6-3, 7-5 win over France’s Oceane Dodin in 77 minutes. She hit 29 winners to just 14 unforced errors, hit eight aces and won 86 percent of her first-serve points. Kvitova was broken just once.

“Definitely she plays very similar flat shots [to me], which I’m trying a little bit with the topspin sometimes on the forehand,” Kvitova said after her victory. “She served very well. In the second set, she really started to play much better than in the first.

“She didn’t make that many mistakes and it was really a tough one. I just really tried to stay there mentally strong and wait for the chance to break her and serve well. In the end of the match, I served really well. So, it was really helping me.”

Now it can be told

• Venus Williams was asked Sunday during her virtual press conference that followed her loss to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova if she thought she would play again this season. The 40-year-old seven-time Grand Slam winner said: “No. There is nowhere to go. And even if there was, I’m done, anyway, so …” In a follow-up question, she was asked if it’s her feeling she would be back next year. “Yeah, definitely.”

Later, Williams was asked what’s been the most difficult thing about this year. She responded: “Probably being separated from people you love probably is the challenging part. Obviously, not being able to be on tour is also a challenge and not having the fans is pretty rough, also.”

Stan Wawrinka was asked Sunday to describe playing with so few fans able to watch on site: “I think we can be happy to be playing here at the French Open. We can be happy to be playing in front of a thousand people. I have been playing only one match without fans, and it’s sad. It was in Rome, and I was sad to play without anybody. Today, honestly I was super happy to see some fans, to see some people here. I think that’s great for us. That’s great for the people. Yeah, I’m happy to be back.”

• Johanna Konta, following her first-round loss to Coco Gauff, was asked to assess her performances this year at the majors, in which she lost in the first round of the Australian Open, second round at the US Open, and first round of the French Open: “I come to the tournaments to do well, to go deep into the second week, to hopefully one day win one. That’s why I show up to every tournament that I play.

“So, I don’t think any player, including myself, will sit here after an early-round loss and be pleased with the result. So, no, I’m not pleased. I would like to do better, but I’m not exactly going to hate myself.”