Roland Garros Begins With Plenty Of Anticipation, Excitement And Upsets

Court Philippe-Chatrier at Stade Roland Garros

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 22, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The French Open, the year’s second major and the only one that starts on Sunday, began in Paris today. Plenty of fans flocked to Stade Roland Garros with none of the COVID-19 restrictions that greatly affected attendance during the past two editions. Despite Sunday’s cloudy conditions, which produced some periods of drizzle,  it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of fans or the quality of play on the famed red clay. There was plenty of anticipation, lots of excitement and even a few surprising upsets, too.

While the Opening Day schedule included past Grand Slam champions such as Dominic Thiem, Garbiñe Muguruza and Sloane Stephens, it also showcased Ons Jabeur, who leads the WTA Tour in clay-court victories (17) this season.

The 64th-ranked Stephens, who won the 2017 US Open and was a 2018 French Open finalist, prevailed over 102nd-ranked German qualifier Jule Niemeier, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, to advance against 26th seed Sorana Cirstea of Romania, who needed just 64 minutes to advance over No. 105 Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-3, 6-3.

“It’s always tough when you play someone you don’t know in the first round of a Grand Slam,” Stephens said during a Tennis Channel interview afterward. “But to get through it, it gives me a lot of confidence. I love these courts; they suit my game really well. … It’s always been somewhere I’ve enjoyed playing.”

Early upsets highlight Opening Day

However, Thiem, who has been winless since returning to the Tour after recovering from surgery to his right wrist, and a pair of Top-10 stars, Muguruza and Jabeur, were all upset in the opening round.

The 194th-ranked Thiem of Austria, twice a finalist in Paris (2018-19) and a four-time semifinalist (2016-19) at Roland-Garros, went out easily to No. 87 Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, who garnered the third Grand Slam win of his career and played pretty flawless tennis in front of family and friends that made the long journey. He showed great touch with his strokes. Dellien broke Thiem four times during the two-hour, one-minute victory and moved into the second round in Paris for the second time.

Dellien won an ATP Challenger Tour event in Santiago, Chile in March and reached the second round of ATP Tour events in Barcelona and Estoril last month after qualifying for both. Next, he will play No. 21 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, who defeated 126th-ranked Portuguese qualifier Nuno Borges, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Afterward in press, Thiem admitted that patience is the key. He summed up his feelings this way: “It is what it is and it’s going to take time until it’s fine again.”

Meanwhile, the 2016 French Open champion Muguruza was the victim of Grand Slam slayer Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, who at age 36 is the oldest player in the women’s draw. The 46th-ranked Kanepi took care of the World No. 10 Muguruza, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and six minutes. It was the tenth time in her career she’s beaten a Top-10 player at a major. It was also her 19th career win over a seeded player in the first three rounds of a Grand Slam.

“It’s not easy to play a tough opponent in the first round,” Kanepi said during her on-court interview. “But I think I enjoy playing Grand Slams more and I think the motivation is higher than smaller tournaments. I try to be more focused and not too emotional when I play in Slams.”

Muguruza, who dropped to 30-7 in major first-round matches, now has lost her opener at Roland-Garros in back-to-back years. It was her fifth time this season in nine events she’s lost after winning the first set.

“I’ve had matches so much in control, but then it’s I don’t manage to close and it gets complicated,” Muguruza said, quoted by the WTA website. “A match is a match and at the end, there’s only a winner. I feel that I’m training hard, I’m putting the work, I’m playing tournaments, trying to switch those moments, try to get more confident.”

Next, Kanepi will face Brazil’s 48th-ranked Beatriz Haddad Maia, who overcame 134th-ranked Spanish qualifier Cristina Bucsa, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2. After making her Top 50 debut last week, Haddad Maia has won 10 of her last 11 matches, including a title win (Saint-Malo, France) and a final at WTA 125 level in her last two tournaments.

As for the World No. 6 and sixth seed Jabeur, who came in with high hopes following a title victory on clay in Madrid bookended by a couple of clay finals in Charleston, S.C. and Rome, she lost to No. 56 Magda Linette of Poland, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5, in two hours and 28 minutes in the opener on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Linette came in just 2-16 against Top-10 opponents and had lost to Jabeur in the French Open third round last year. However, this time produced a different outcome.

Although Jabeur hit more winners than Linette, 35 to 32, the Tunisian produced more unforced errors, 47-35, and it made a difference in the outcome. The loss broke a streak in which Jabeur was undefeated in her last eight first-round matches at majors.

“I lost to [Ons] last year in the third round, so I knew how difficult it was going to be [to win],” Linette said in her on-court interview. “I knew how well she’s been playing all this time. I knew I had to be focused and play every single point and try to make her uncomfortable. I’m just happy I managed to fight for every single point.”

Anticipation for Alcaraz builds and he delivers a victory

By early evening, the anticipated match featuring Spanish teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz finally took stage on Court Philippe-Chatrier. When Alcaraz made his French Open main draw debut a year ago, he was a 97th-ranked qualifier who had only been ranked in the Top 100 for a week. While he’s still a teenager, everything else has changed.

The 19-year-old, sixth seed from El Palmar, Murcia in Spain, who happens to be the youngest player to break into the ATP Tour’s Top 10 since Rafael Nadal in 2005, was featured in the final match of the day on the largest show court at Stade Roland Garros. He played 141st-ranked Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina.

As it turned out, Alcaraz was up to the task. He beat Londero 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in one hour and 50 minutes to advance to the second round against No. 42 Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain, who defeated No. 85 Thanasi Kokkinakis of Greece, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), in four hours and seven minutes. Alcaraz hit 22 winners, converted six of 12 break points and didn’t face any break points on his serve. He outpointed Londero 91-61.

With a career-high ranking of No. 6, Alcaraz arrived in Paris with an ATP Tour-leading four titles won this season – three of them on clay – and an outstanding 28-3 win-loss record. With his latest triumph, he’s on an 11-match winning streak and has won back-to-back titles in Barcelona and Madrid. Indeed, Alcaraz has come a long way in 12 months. This time, he’s one of the favorites despite being in packed upper half of the men’s draw that includes Nadal and World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic.

Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Londero’s best ATP result came when he reached the semifinals at Cordoba in February. His only tour-level title came at Cordoba in 2019 and he reached a career-high ranking of No. 50 the same year.

Auger-Aliassime goes the distance to win

World No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada rallied from two-sets-to-love down against 122nd-ranked qualifier Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru and recovered in time to win 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 on Court Philippe-Chatrier in three hours and 14 minutes. It was his first Roland-Garros main-draw win in three tries.

Varillas came out strong in his Grand Slam debut and played fearless tennis for the first two sets in his first meeting against the ninth-seeded Canadian. However, once Auger-Aliassime cut down his unforced error count, which added up to 44 for the match, he also got more of his first serves in play – winning 12 of 12 first-serve points in the fourth set – and his power game took over. Auger-Aliassime finished with 14 aces and 52 winners.

The 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime was coming off quarterfinal finishes in Madrid and Rome and is expected to make a deep run at Roland-Garros. Meanwhile, Varillas, a four-time ATP Challenger Tour champion, was looking to win his second tour-level match of the season and first career Top 10 victory. For two sets, he had a lot of believers.

“Varillas showed up with a great level,” Auger-Aliassime said in press. “I made it play well, too flat, what he wanted all the time. It was dangerous because it took me time to figure out what to change.”

In the end, though, Auger-Aliassime’s experience paid off in his first Paris victory. He outpointed Varillas 123-110. Next, he will play 154th-ranked qualifier Camilo Ugo Carabelli of Argentina, who needed four hours and 17 minutes to defeat No. 39 Aslan Karatsev of Russia.

Sakkari wins on her favorite court at her favorite tournament

There’s no place like Court Philippe-Chatrier. Just ask No. 4 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who put a halt to the tide of Top 10 upsets with her 6-2, 6-3 victory over 94th-ranked Frenchwoman Clara Burel in an hour and 28 minutes.

A French Open semifinalist last year, the World No. 3 Sakkari fired 24 winners and broke Burel’s serve five times as she swung freely throughout the first-round match. The victory was Sakkari’s 20th of the season and it came on her favorite court at her favorite tournament.

It is my favorite tournament; it is my favorite court in the world,” Sakkari said during her on-court interview that followed her win. “I have great memories of last year. I know that 99.9 percent were supporting Clara, which is normal. I absolutely understand, but this atmosphere is something amazing. I’m very glad we’re back to normal, back to normal conditions and that I can actually witness the atmosphere. …

“This is the first year I’ve played on this court under normal conditions with a full crowd. I never felt the atmosphere before. It’s a reward for all my hard work to get here and enter as a Top 5 player and play in front of you.”

Around Roland-Garros

Opening Day of the French began with 20 men’s and 20 women’s singles matches.With the first round of the French Open spread over three days, last year’s men’s champion, top seed Novak Djokovic as well as 13-time Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal will play their first matches on Monday. So, too, will women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who brings a 28-match winning streak into play.

• The first completed match was brief – just 64 minutes – and was won by women’s 26th seed Sorana Cirstea of Romania, who defeated No. 105 Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-3, 6-3, shortly after noon on Court 6. It was soon followed by Colombia’s 66th-ranked Camila Osorio, who defeated No. 106 Harmony Tan of France, 6-4, 6-3, on Court 14, for her first French Open main draw victory.

• The first men’s winner was No 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who took out No. 49 Marcos Giron of the United States, in triple bread stick fashion, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, in an hour and 34 minutes on Court 7. Dimitrov hit 28 winners and converted 7 of 17 break points. He’s 13-11 lifetime at the French Open.

• The first men’s five-set match of the fortnight took place on Court 14 between No. 105 Taro Daniel of Japan and 209th-ranked French wild card Gregoire Barrere. After three hours and 14 minutes, it went to Barrere, 3-6, 6-2, 0-6, 6-3, 6-4. He will face No. 23 seed John Isner of the United States, who outlasted No. 86 Quentin Halys of France, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6), over the course of three hours and 20 minutes in back of 27 aces and 64 winners on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.

• The highest men’s seed to fall was No. 25 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, who was upset by 64th-ranked Geneva quarterfinalist Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands, 2-6, 6-9, 6-4, 6-3, while the first men’s seed to lose was No. 31 Jenson Brooksby of the United States, who was eliminated by No. 118 Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2.

• The longest match of the day took place on Court 12 between Camilo Ugo Carabelli of Argentina and Aslan Karatsev of Russia. It lasted four hours and 17 minutes, won by the Argentine, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5). The final set was the first of the tournament to be decided by a 10-point match tie-break..

Sunday’s French Open results

Monday’s French Open order of play

By the numbers

World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany is making his seventh straight Roland-Garros main draw appearance. The third seed is now 6-1 in the first round following his 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory over 218th-ranked qualifier Sebastian Offner of Austria.

Zverev hit 13 aces and delivered 32 winners against Offner and outpointed his opponent 94-72. He reached the 2021 semifinalist after coming from two sets down against countryman Oscar Otte and was a quarterfinalist in both 2018 and 2019.

Passing shots

“Quotable …”

“I feel I am always in contention to fight for any Grand Slam trophy. I believe in my own abilities to get far and to fight for one of the most prestigious trophies in the world of tennis.

“As a defending champion of course more so, to believe I can do it again. Reviving the memories from last year is something that obviously gives me goosebumps and motivation to try to replicate that.”

– Men’s defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia, during his pre-tournament press conference. Djokovic celebrated his 35th birthday at the French Open Sunday.