Aryna Sabalenka is on a mission in Paris and out to prove herself among the best on the clay, ruthlessly making quick work of Croatian qualifier Ana Konjuh in opener, 6-4 6-3, in just 75 minutes, while compatriot Victoria Azarenka battled past Svetlana Kuznetsova in a battle of former Grand Slam champions.
My mentality is kind of, 'what happened in the past, happened in the past'. Tomorrow’s a new day, you just have to keep working and showing your level and fighting for every point and you never know what could happen. My expectations for Roland-Garros is to fight for every point no matter what, do everything I can to go as far as I can. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka, the No 3 from Belarus, found her range after going down in the first set, racking up 7 aces and 24 winners in the process, double Konjuh’s total, and breaking the Croat serve 6 times.
Konjuh had reached the final at the WTA 250 in Belgrade, Serbia two weeks ago and scored 3 straight-set wins in qualifying but could find no answer to Sabalenka’s ferocious game.
Sabalenka, who is seeking her maiden Grand Slam title, sent out a warning earlier this month when she won the Madrid Open, but she started on the back foot when she was broken in the first game and soon found herself 4-2 down in just 20 minutes.
“I would say it wasn’t a great level today from me, but I kept trying, kept fighting, kept trying to find my game,” Sabalenka said. “It was a little bit [of a] nervous game, especially in the beginning, because I felt like everything is not going well, and I don’t really feel my game.
“I’m really happy in the end of the first set I kind of could find the rhythm.
“I won the first set, and then everything start to be a little bit better.
“It was tough match. She’s really aggressive. Sometimes, it was really tough to play under the pressure, under her pressure. I’m just really happy with this win.”
The 3rd seed will take on fellow Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who beat French wild-card Diane Parry, 6-3 3-6 6-3.
Sabalenka doubled down and found her bearings before her aggression came to the fore as she created angles to open up the court and capitalise with powerful winners to take a 5-4 lead.
Konjuh, a former junior World No 1 looking to mount a career comeback after a series of elbow surgeries, went on the defensive and handed the opening set to Sabalenka when she double-faulted on set point.
“In the beginning… I felt like everything is not going well and I didn’t really feel my game. So many mistakes,” Sabalenka, who finished with 24 winners and 31 unforced errors, told reporters.
“But I’m really happy with the end of the first set, I kind of could find the rhythm. I won the first set and then everything start to be a little bit better.”
A re-energised and more focused Sabalenka emerged in the second set and she quickly raced away to take a 3-1 lead with two more breaks of serve as Konjuh faltered with a string of double-faults.
Despite saving a match point with a hold of serve, Konjuh bowed out when she found the net on Sabalenka’s second match point.
The free-swinging Belarusian’s learning curve has become more mental than anything overtly technical in recent times and she has proven this year that she has what it takes against the best in the business, especially on clay, where patience had too often deserted her before.
Wins over the likes of Roland-Garros champions Simona Halep en route to the Stuttgart final and world No 1 Ash Barty a week later in the Madrid final confirmed her credentials as she racked up an 11-2 record on red clay coming into Paris.
Seven years have passed since Maria Sharapova claimed a clay-court lead-up trophy and went on to triumph at Roland-Garros.
No woman has done so since and if Sabalenka is to repeat the Sharapova Madrid-Paris double, she will only be focused on her next match against her good friend and Billie Jean King Cup teammate, Sasnovich.
“My mentality is kind of, ‘what happened in the past, happened in the past’,” she said. “Tomorrow’s a new day, you just have to keep working and showing your level and fighting for every point and you never know what could happen.
“My expectations for Roland-Garros is to fight for every point no matter what, do everything I can to go as far as I can.”
Fellow maiden major contenders and proven performers are duly warned,
Meanwhile, yet another Belarusian was fighting her way into the second round as Victoria Azarenka battled her way past Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4 2-6 6-3.
The former World No 1 has been injury-prone of late, but is now pain-free after a back injury, with just one match on clay under her belt.
Despite a lot of MRIs, Azarenka said she they couldn’t really figure out what’s wrong.
“So it was a bit of a battle,” she said. “Things were getting better. Then I play and things are getting worse. Mentally it was very, very difficult. Taking decisions to withdraw and not play was even more difficult for me.”
The turning point came about two-and-a-half weeks ago, when the two-time Australian Open winner was finally able to practise pain-free.
“It was really encouraging,” she said. “Today playing, I don’t know how long, two-plus hours we played with a lot of movement, a lot of tenacity, so I’m happy about that.”
In a battle of dual major winners, Kuznetsova trailed 4-2 in the first set, as shadows started to fall over the Court Philippe Chatrier but fought her way back to 4-all, only to be broken again.
She then gifted Azarenka 2 set points on a backhand error, and dropped the first set on a forehand error.
Another momentum shift followed at the start of the second, with Kuznetsova taking a 2-0 lead as her opponent dropped serve with three double-faults.
Going down 0-5, Azarenka clawed back 2 games before Kuznetsova took the set to level with a huge backhand winner.
Azarenka regrouped in a topsy-turvy decider, racing to a 3-1 lead as she improved her serve and forced her opponent into making mistakes with powerful groundstrokes.
After squandering a first match point at 5-2, Azarenka converted her second when she served at 5-3.
Playing in her 14th Roland-Garros, Azarenka said she enjoyed competing more than ever before, even though life in the Covid bubble during tournaments can be tough.
“I feel like I’m motivated more than I was before,” she said. “I feel happy. I feel like I’m learning more, and I’m pushing my own potential.”
Azarenka has not been beyond the third round in Paris since a run to the semi-final in 2013. Could this be her year?
“I always feel like I can do something at any tournament,” Azarenka said. “I always believe in myself. I am always going to push myself to the limit.”
Up next, the talented Danish teenager Clara Tauson, who upset the in-form Jennifer Brady of the US in the first round of Roland-Garros last year and beat Georgian Ekaterine Gorgodze, 6-4 6-2, to get her 2021 campaign under way.
“Not to be disrespectful to a player, but I don’t really know her,” said Azarenka. “I have not really seen her play, so it’s going to be a bit of homework for me to do.”