Serena Williams admitted skipping the French Open “crossed my mind every day” after recovering from a horror start to her campaign to beat Vitalia Diatchenko.
Williams arrived in Paris having played just four tournaments this year, withdrawing from all of them except the Australian Open, where she lost from 5-1 up in the deciding set of her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova.
Latterly Williams has been troubled by a left knee problem, and a picture of her sitting in a wheelchair last week when she took her daughter to Disneyland added to concerns about her fitness.
She looked nervous and rusty as Russian Diatchenko, ranked 83rd, took the opening set amid a slew of errors from her opponent, but a roar of frustration let out by Williams seemed to turn things in the right direction and she lost only one of the last 13 games. Serena thus racked up her 800th career main draw win with her 2-6, 6-1, 6-0 victory.
“I just got nervous out there and I stopped moving my feet,” said Williams. “And it was like concrete blocks on my feet. I was, like, ‘You’ve got to do something’.
“I was just making so many errors. Every shot I hit, I felt like I was hitting on my frame. I usually don’t hit balls on my frame. I was just off, basically. And then instead of correcting it, I just kept getting worse.
“I knew it couldn’t get worse, and I knew I could only go up. That’s what I told myself. I’ve just got to keep positive.”
Of the roar, Williams added: “I just was so frustrated at that point, because I have been training well. I just let out this roar, and here I am. So maybe that helped.”
She also tried tweaking her outfit, pulling on a black top, and putting her hair up in a bun as she sought a change in fortune.
“I just needed to change,” she said. “I was, like, ‘I’ve got to try something different’. It’s not my forehand, it’s my clothes, right?”
Twelve months after making her grand slam return in a catsuit that was eventually banned, Williams wore a striking two-piece outfit and, for her entrance, a cape covered with the words ‘queen’, ‘champion’, ‘goddess’ and ‘mum’ in French.
She has proved many times in the past that her form going into a grand slam is not a reliable indicator of how she might fare, but it would be her most remarkable triumph yet if she could win a 24th grand slam singles title here.
Williams hesitated whether to even play at Roland Garros, saying: “It crossed my mind every day, but I’m here. And to do the best that I can do.”
Fourth seed Kiki Bertens, who is hotly fancied to do well, made a confident start with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Pauline Parmentier but 13th seed Caroline Wozniacki crashed out 0-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Russian Viktoria Kudermetova.
Wozniacki has been struggling with a left calf injury, and she said: “I think I played really well in the first set. And then I think she got very lucky at the start of the second set and took advantage of the opportunities she got.
“And then I think I just lost a little steam in the end and I made some unforced errors that I normally don’t do, so that was very frustrating. I haven’t had the best lead-up to this tournament.”
Sixth seed Petra Kvitova did not take to the court for her scheduled clash with Sorana Cirstea after being diagnosed with a grade two muscle tear in her left forearm.
The two-time Wimbledon champion is hopeful of being fit for the grass-court season.
It would be a shock if the final on June 9 is not a repeat of the Australian Open decider, and nothing in Nadal’s victory over Yannick Hanfmann or Djokovic’s downing of Hubert Hurkacz changed that view.
Djokovic had the more difficult assignment against 22-year-old Pole Hurkacz, who has made swift progress up the rankings, but the world number one was dialled in from the start and eased to a 6-4 6-2 6-2 victory.
“I had to start sharp with the right intensity,” he said. “And a break of serve in the first game gave me wings, I would say, and relaxed me a bit so I could just start off in the best possible fashion. I thought I played a very solid match.”
Djokovic and Nadal have played each other seven times at Roland Garros, with the Spaniard winning six, so it could be to Djokovic’s advantage that he feels the redevelopment of Chatrier has changed the playing conditions.
“It’s a pleasure to play in the new court,” he said. “It looks different, obviously, and feels a bit different. It feels a little bit more like indoor, which I like.”
Nadal disagreed after his 6-2 6-1 6-3 victory over German qualifier Hanfmann, who was playing only his second grand slam match.
“I think it’s the same,” he said. “I don’t have different feelings. In terms of a visual game, we can talk about small differences, but in terms of playing tennis, I think it’s the same.”
Nadal had to consult YouTube to learn more about Hanfmann, and he will do the same for his next opponent, another German qualifier called Yannick, this time Yannick Maden.
Nadal was content with his opening display, saying: “It was a first round, and I did a lot of things well. Not many mistakes. Being very solid all the time.
“Of course it is the beginning and the first round is more about talking about what I have to do better. What I did very well today is just about the general
feeling, and the general feeling has been positive this afternoon.”
Fourth seed Dominic Thiem, who was beaten by Nadal in the final 12 months ago, was in trouble against American Tommy Paul but recovered to win 6-4 4-6 7-6 (5) 6-2.
After taking the second set, Paul led 4-0 in the tie-break but could not hang onto his advantage.
It was a good day for the home country, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Benoit Paire, Gilles Simon and Corentin Moutet all winning, but the French moment of the day undoubtedly came on Court 14, where Pierre-Hugues Herbert came from two sets down to defeat 12th seed Daniil Medvedev 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5.
Herbert’s fine victory came only a day after his long-time doubles partner Nicolas Mahut mounted a similar comeback against Marco Cecchinato.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Roger Federer needed no reintroduction to Roland Garros, but the Swiss superstar is happy to fly under the radar.
Federer, who turns 38 in August, is challenging for the French Open title once again after giving the clay season a miss for the past three years.
The change to his schedule has seen the all-time great pick up three more Grand Slam titles and avoid the debilitating injuries that threatened to end his career in 2016.
He has elected however to return this year and hit the ground running by dispatching Italian Lorenzo Sonego 6-2 6-4 6-4 in just an hour and 41 minutes in his first-round clash on Sunday.
With long-time rivals Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic duelling in the Italian Open last week – as Federer withdrew from the quarter-finals – the world No.3 is for once not up among the outright favourites to win the tournament.
Watch why Federer believes this is a good thing above.