Opening rounds are tough at the Grand Slams but none so tough than in Paris where the top seeds are having a torrid time.
Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber made premature departures before Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Garbiñe Muguruza survived anxious three-set scares.
I wanted this badly, and I wanted so much that now having it, I just want to be happy and to smile Simona Halep
Defending champion Simona Halep joined those names before finding a way to dispatch Australian Alja Tomljanovic’s challenge, 6-2 3-6 6-1 on Day 3 at Roland Garros.
With the monkey off her back, having won her first major title last year, Halep is philosophical these days.
“Doesn’t matter anymore what is going to happen,“ she told Reuters. “Everything comes now comes as a bonus. So I’ll try just to give my best and to see if I’m able to do it again”.
The former World No 1 is in a very good mood and she looks like she has no pressure on herself: “I am too happy to be in this position… it’s nothing bad. So I will try to do the things 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”.
She had to find another gear on Tuesday to weather the onslaught from a red-lining Tomljanovic in the second set, eventually coming out on top.
She praised her opponent for that mid-match wobble, rather than blaming herself.
“The level was great, and actually her level in the second set was really high,” Halep said.
“So I had to be focused more on myself to find out what I have to play better in the third set to be able to win.
“And then I just started to feel that if I make her move, it’s a little bit better for me, so I did that.
“Of course it was not easy because of the emotions, the pressure, but it’s always nice to go back on that court.”
Tomljanovic had beaten Halep in Paris before, so the Australian posed a real threat for a while, playing with measured aggression, but when she was broken in the opening game of the deciding set momentum was quickly snapped.
Halep was able to breathe more easily when she threaded a forehand into the corner to secure the double break and went on to book a second-round meeting with Poland’s Magda Linette at the 97-minute mark.
The Romanian will draw much confidence from this win and, following Petra Kvitova’s withdrawal, she won’t face a top-10 seed until at least the semi-finals, with No 11 Aryna Sabalenka the highest remaining.
Twelve months ago, it was Jelena Ostapenko who did succumb to the pressure at the first hurdle in her title defence, and this year she faced a major problem in Victoria Azarenka,
Erratic serving, piling up the double faults, were her undoing in opening round against the former World No 1 Belarusian.
In fact, both found it hard to hold serve at all, failing to win four straight points in a row.
The Latvian made 11 double faults in her first five service deliveries alone, an average of more than two per game, and produced 27 unforced errors in the first set, and 33 in the second.
After 60 errors for a match that didn’t even go to three sets, Ostapenko seemed incapable of keeping the ball in the court for longer than a minute, a far cry from her run at the same venue two years ago.
A gifted power player just out of her teens, who seemingly knew no fear, Ostapenko set the 2017 French Open alight with her incredible shot-making and poor Halep didn’t know what hit her in the final, as the Latvian screamed over 50 winners past her.
Ostapenko, who is still only 21, has never won a match on Parisian clay before or after that epic run, and now has added to that tally.
Despite the error count, she still had chances to win both the sets, gaining a break up in each with eye-popping winners with her movement, fine-tuned by her years of ballroom dancing as a kid, smooth and perfectly balanced that she almost always seems to have a lot of time to play her shots.
All of her technical proficiency off the ground helped Ostapenko strike 33 winners against Azarenka, but the double fault deficit of 17 became her downfall.
All credit to Azarenka, though, No 43 in the world, who won 6-4 7-6(4) in a scrappy match full of twists.
The Belarusian had two match points saved in the second and was broken for a second time before she won the deciding tiebreak.
Azarenka, who has beaten Czech 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova and Ukrainian 9th seed Elina Svitolina on clay in the past month, will next face World No 1 Naomi Osaka, who survived an almighty scare against Slovakia’s Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, in the next round.
“Just the usual second round match,” Azarenka said, after learning of her next opponent. “But it’s going to be exciting for me. I love to challenge myself against the best players.”
The top seed came back from the brink to turn a near-disaster into victory, 0-6 7-6(4) 6-1, in her opener victory over Schmiedlova.
In her first-ever appearance on Court Philippe-Chatrier, an utterly disastrous first set blew by in just 20 minutes, before Osaka at last grabbed control when the Slovak was just two points from a shock win.
“This is the most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match,” admitted Osaka later.
“Logical reasons… First time playing a Grand Slam as No 1. Won the last two, so I kind of want to win this one really bad. I have never played on Chatrier before.
“I feel like I’m thinking too much about the number next to my name right now, instead of feeling free and having fun like I normally do in Grand Slams. Everything that I’m experiencing right now is very new.”
Having reached at least the quarter-finals in all three of the clay tournaments she has played in the run-up to Roland-Garros, injury ruled her out of the last two – an abdominal strain in Madrid and, more worryingly, a problem with her right thumb in Rome.
“It was completely fine,” she confirmed.
The match was played out in a cold breeze, with prolonged drizzle at times, a rain break and bright sunshine, all adding up to way too many variations in the whole clay-court equation for Osaka, who is still trying to figure out how to play on the red stuff.
Osaka’s go-to weapon is her serve and she added 10 aces here to her existing tally for the year of 184; only Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova have delivered more.
While her frustration with her inability to find consistency built, her 16th unforced backhand error of the match handed Schmiedlova the chance to serve for the match.
At the sit-down, the Japanese buried her face in a towel, and let loose her emotions by shedding a few tears and, in the next game, her attack at last started to come together, ahead of the tiebreak, which was never in doubt.
An echo of her tears during the Australian Open final, when she left the court for a bathroom break after Petra Kvitova snatched the second set to level the match, Osaka the too regained her focus and took the decider 6-4.
On this day, she broke for 2-1 in the deciding set, striking 3 backhand winners, wreaking havoc on her opponent and, from that point on, she stretched away.
Next up for Osaka is Azarenka, whose experience as an ex-world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion should make for a sterner test than World No 90 Schmiedlova.
Their two meetings to date resulted in an overwhelming win for Azarenka in Australia in 2016, and a similarly conclusive victory for Osaka on the Roman clay last year.
“She’s been playing really well recently, and there is no way that it’s going to be a similar match to the one I played her in Rome last year,” said Osaka. “So I’m expecting one of the hardest matches of the year.”
In other action on Day 3, Bianca Andreescu overcame a sluggish start to win on her French Open debut while Daria Kasatkina had an easier outing.
Indian Wells Masters champion Andreescu headed to Roland Garros for her first French Open adventure with no clay-court matches under her belt this season following a shoulder injury, and it certainly showed early on as Marie Bouzkova won the opening set. on Monday
She hit back in the second set before play got suspended, but the Canadian teenager returned on Tuesday morning to get the job done with a 5-7 6-4 6-4 win.
She will face American Sofia Kenin, who beat qualifier Giulia Gatto Monticone, 6-3 5-7 6-2, in the second round.
Russian 21st seed Kasatkina produced a confident display against Jasmine Paolini as she beat the Italian qualifier 6-2 6-3 to set up a clash against Monica Puig after the reigning Olympic champion from Costa Rica beat Kirsten Flipkens 6-1 7-5.
The 24th seeded Caroline Garcia flew the French flag high as she secured a 6-2 6-4 win over Mona Barthel, Irina-Camelia Begu dropped only two games as the Romanian saw off Lin Zhu 6-1 6-1, while Amanda Anisimova beat Harmony Tan 6-3 6-1.