It is a whole new experience, watching the sun set as play continues into the evening under lights at Roland Garros, and gone are the controversial late matches played in near darkness. Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens won under the new, fine conditions, but both were severely tested late on Tuesday at the French Open, while Carla Suarez Navarro achieved a personal ambition.
[It] was a long time, really tough moments, tough months. But, well, every time I had on my mind that I want to be here, I want to come back. Roland Garros is one of my favourite tournaments, so I [was] really clear that my first tournament will be this one. Carla Suarez Navarro
Gauff, the 17-year-old 24th seed, who many pick for a big run in Paris this year, came through a tough opening match, seeing off Aleksandra Krunic from Serbia, 7-6(11) 6-4.
A semi-finalist in Rome and the title winner in Parma, the American came to Paris with plenty of confidence on clay, but found the qualifier more than a match and had to save 4 set points in the opening set tiebreak before clinching it 13-11 after 85 minutes.
Having led 4-0 in the second set, she then withstood a bold fightback from the 213th-ranked qualifier to squeeze into the second round.
“I was super nervous going into today’s match, to be honest,” said Gauff, after winning her first match as a seeded player at a Grand Slam event. “Just because I knew she’s a tricky player and she went through qualies and had some matches behind her.
“I went through qualifying before so I know how confident you are playing in the first round.”
It was a gritty performance by the young American, who got out in front early, but then went down a break before striking back and getting a chance to close out the set, only to find herself set point down 4 times as the 28-year-old Krunic kept her at bay with some fine serving and big hitting.
A former Top 50 player, the Serbian staged a second comeback in the second set before Gauff was able to work her way out of that jam to come through against the World No 213 after 2 hours 7 minutes.
“She played really well, great tennis,” Gauff said after the match. “I didn’t play my best today, but I’m happy that I was able to fight through it.
“The first set, there were many moments I could have gave up, but I didn’t. I’m happy with the result today.”
Gauff pulled through by getting 71 percent of her first serves into play, and won 72 percent of the points when she did, while Krunic’s first-serve percentage lingered at just 45 percent and she won 63 percent of those points, as the American was constantly on the attack while returning.
Next up for Gauff is a second-round match with China’s Wang Qiang, who outlasted Hsieh Su-wei from Taipei, 2-6 6-4 7-5, and who fell to the American teenager in the Parma final two weeks ago.
Before that, though, she has a first-round doubles match with 7-time Grand Slam singles and 14-time Grand Slam doubles champion Venus Williams to look forward to on Wednesday.
“I’m actually super happy, because… my dad reached out to Venus’s team last minute, because unfortunately my partner, I was playing with Caty (McNally), she got hurt in quallies, and we thought it was best if she rest and get ready for the grass,” Gauff explained.
“So I reached out last minute and I wasn’t expecting a yes, to be honest. It was worth the ask. I’m happy she said yes. It’s going to be super exciting.
“For me, I love playing doubles and hopefully I can pick up some things from her.
“She obviously has so many Grand Slams in doubles, and I want to win Grand Slams in singles and doubles. Maybe this week we can have a good run these two weeks. It’s going to be exciting and I’m excited.”
Gauff won the doubles to go with her singles crown in Parma, her 3rd career doubles title.
The final night match of Day 3 was a nostalgic affair that was worthy of some fan appreciation but the sun had long set when Sloane Stephens took on Carla Suarez Navarro and the Paris curfew was in place sending any remaining fans in the grounds home.
Stephens saved a match point at 5-4 in the second set and went on to beat the Spaniard, 3-6 7-6(4) 6-4, in a 2 hours, 24 minute marathon.
Suarez Navarro, nevertheless, came off court a winner since she had returned to tennis only 5 weeks earlier after announcing she had recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it had been 15 months since the 32-year-old had played a competitive match.
She had to wait until the final women’s match of the first round in Paris but showed few signs of nerves or rust, pushing Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and former French Open finalist, to the brink with her powerful backhand and unrelenting fight.
Even though the result wasn’t what Suarez Navarro wanted, just the possibility of having the opportunity to play one last time at Roland Garros had helped her through the most challenging of days during her treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma.
“[It] was a long time, really tough moments, tough months,” said Suarez Navarro after the match. “But, well, every time I had on my mind that I want to be here, I want to come back. Roland Garros is one of my favourite tournaments, so I [was] really clear that my first tournament will be this one.”
The smattering of people who remained in the stadium at Court Simonne-Mathieu were mostly the players’ teams and various tournament officials, who rose to applaud at the conclusion of the match, which marked a farewell Suarez Navarro had originally planned on making in 2020.
She had walked onto the court as her name was announced and gave a small wave to the crowd, who stayed as long as they could before being kicked out because of the 9 pm local curfew, and she took an early 4-1 lead, then won the first set.
“I thought she played her normal Carla tennis, up on the baseline with that one-handed backhand,” Stephens said. “I thought she, you know, played like she normally does. She brought it to me today.”
Stephens raised her level and intensity to match Suarez Navarro in the second set, but the Spaniard still had the chance to serve for the match at 5-4, and was two points away from victory, before the American forced a tiebreak and then a decider.
Suarez Navarro said she knew it would be a challenge to win in a third set and admitted to being tired down the stretch, but she continued to fight for every ball.
She trailed 4-2 but won the next two games before Stephens finally pulled away, thanks to her dominant forehand.
The two embraced at the net when it was finally over, and Stephens applauded her as she walked off the court, while her peers flocked to social media to remark on her courage and tenacity.
“I have all the time in my mind that I want to come back,” Suarez Navarro said. “I was dreaming every day.
“Well, I know that the rest of the players will be really good with a lot of match. I don’t know what to say — it was tough, but I was ready to play, to practice, to be here again [at] my best level.
“[Like] I said before, I think I feel proud of what I did, but I’m really sad because I lost. I mean, every time I go on court, I want to win.”
She has said she hopes to play Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as the Olympics if she were to qualify for Spain’s team, so there is time for her to record more wins.
Having already won what she called ‘the most important match of my life’, Suarez Navarro will finally get the chance to finish her career on her own terms.
Stephens, meanwhile, moves on to meet Karolina Pliskova, the No 9 seed from the Czech Republic, who put away Croatia’s Donna Vekic, 7-5 6-4 earlier in on Tuesday.