French Open 2016: Radwanska beats Garcia but faces uphill battle to No1 via Halep and Muguruza

Agnieszka Radwanska beats Caroline Garcia in straight sets to reach the third round of the French Open

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Paris

Such is the dominance of Serena Williams on the women’s tour and in Grand Slam history that her campaign to match the Open era record of Steffi Graf in Paris this year with a 22nd Major has been dominating headlines across the tennis media.

But Williams has also maintained a vice-like grasp on the rankings for over three years: Her current hold at the top began in February 2013. And as she makes her way through the Roland Garros draw, her total tally will move from 294 weeks to 295. Yet her grip on the No1 ranking could be loosened before she passes the remarkable 300 milestone.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the current No2, is the top player in a half that may not contain either of the Williams sisters but has a bucket-load of Grand Slam winners and runners-up that could derail what is one of the biggest challenges this fortnight.

For the popular Pole, who has been voted the WTA Fans Favourite for the last five years in a row, has an outside chance of taking the No1 ranking here—though several stars would have to align in her favour.

First of all, Radwanska needs to make the final—which would be enough should Williams lose in the second round.

Should Radwanska win the title, that would be enough if Williams loses in the semis.

The problem being, of course, that there is a reason why Williams is the favourite not just to reach the final but to win the title, her fourth here. She arrived in Paris with the Rome title, and asserted herself on the draw with a 42-minute demolition of her opening opponent, Magdalena Rybarikova. She has, too, a 15-1 record here since her first-round loss in 2013.

Who can stop her? Well Radwanska may have noticed that Williams’ scheduled quarter-finalist Victoria Azarenka and scheduled semi-finalist Angelique Kerber—two of the three women to beat her this year—are already out of contention.

The other fly in the ointment is Radwanska’s own history at Roland Garros. In nine previous visits, she has made the quarter-finals just once, and has won just two matches since that 2013 run. But it is that recent record that has presented Radwanska with her opportunity: She has just 10 points to defend from last year, Williams has 2,000.

But what of the world No2’s draw, and all those high-quality trip-wires who may halt her challenge before it has even begun?

Her first seed, Barbora Strycova, was a quarter-finalist in Rome—a tournament that Radwanska bypassed this year in favour of practice and a change of French fortunes.

Her second seed could be Sloane Stephens, winner of Charleston among three titles this season.

As for the quarter-final, ‘stacked’ hardly does it justice. Lucie Safarova was last year’s finalist here. Sam Stosur, a Grand Slam champion in her own right, made the finals here in 2010, and Simona Halep was finalist here in 2014, and arrived in Paris with the Madrid title to her name. All three advanced to the third round without dropping a set.

Should Radwanska come through that opposition to reach the semis, the picture becomes little better is she is to reach that all-important final place.

Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova jostles for position with last year’s Wimbledon finalist, Garbine Mugurza: Both sailed into the third round here. And between them is one of the few former French Open champions, the formidable Svetlana Kuznetsova, winner here in 2009 and a finalist in 2006 too.

It was the evergreen Russian who scored the only other victory over Williams this year on her way to the Miami final. On clay, she was a semi-finalist in Prague and a quarter-finalist in Rome, and all that experience and power came to the fore against the remaining British woman in the draw, Heather Watson.

Kuznetsova broke twice for a 3-0 lead, and continued to pound the ball deep and put away smashes for a 6-1 set. Watson looked as though she would make inroads in the second set, broke immediately, but was broken back, and after several closely-fought games, Kuznetsova broke again in the sixth and served it out, 6-3.

So none of the big names in the bottom half of the draw so much as lost a set on the first sunny day of the championships. And to join them, Radwanska first faced one of the trickiest unseeded players, French darling and last week’s Strasbourg champion, Caroline Garcia.

All three of their previous meetings had gone to three sets, and the world No40 had the backing of a vocal home crowd, too. She also broke Radwanska in the first game, but the guile and craft of the world No2, and some very nimble movement, ensured she got the break straight back, and she took the first set, 6-2, in three quarters of an hour.

Radwanska raced to a lead in the second set, too, 3-0, but serving for the match at 5-3, Radwanska saw a bullet of a forehand winner shoot down the line to break. However the flamboyant shot-maker Garcia threw away her chance with two double faults and Radwanska broke for the match, 6-4.

Next up, Strycova, and the Pole has won all four of their previous matches—though none was on clay. But as Radwanska said at the start of the tournament:

“As we see, everything can happen, especially in the early rounds of a Grand Slam. I think there are so many girls playing great tennis who deserve also to be top 10, top 20—there are no more easy matches. Obviously you have a bit more pressure being second seed, but doesn’t mean it is going to be any easier.”

In her case, in Paris, it could not be more true. The road to that No1 ranking will be a long, uphill struggle, but Radwanska is looking fresh, eager and ready for the battle.

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