French Open 2016: Durable Serena Williams cruises, Azarenka and Kerber make painful exits

Serena Williams is through to the second round of the French Open after a straight sets win over Magdalena Rybarikova

This time last year, Serena Williams began what would become one of her most gruelling French Open campaigns after a brilliant but draining season that began with victory in Australia, took in the Miami title, the semis in Indian Wells and Madrid, plus a couple of Fed Cup ties.

She did win her third French Open, but five of her seven matches took three sets, and in four of those she came back from a first-set loss. By the time she tried to complete that rarest of achievements, a calendar Slam, at the US Open, she was spent: after her semi loss, she would not play again in 2015.

This year has been a little different, though still successful by most players’ standards—finals in Australia and Indian Wells before winning her first title of the season in Rome. Which all might be interpretedas great timing and precision preparation: She had not over-played, was running into form on the red stuff, and ready to go for title No4 in the city she calls her second home, Paris.

Perhaps it also had something do with the No1 ranking, which Williams has held unbroken for over three years. She is just five weeks away from a total of 300 weeks as No1 and needs to put in a good run to hold off current No2 Agnieszka Radwanska in the coming fortnight.

It certainly looked as though Williams was leaving nothing to chance in her first match here, what can only be described as a gallop past Magdalena Rybarikova. After allowing the Slovakian to nibble back a 2-0 lead at the start of the first set, Williams reeled off 10 straight games to win 6-2, 6-0 in 42 minutes.

She hit 25 winners to just five errors, but if she had one criticism, it was the brevity of the match: “It was a little short for me, but I think in my career if I don’t have it by now I need to look into something different!”

She will next play Teliana Pereira, who won a long and late battle in dwindling light to Kristyna Pliskova, 7-5, 3-6, 9-7.

Williams’ quality and longevity, then, remain formidable: She will turn 35 in September, though she is already the oldest No1 since the ranking system began, and is closing in on Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 Majors. If Williams wins in Paris, she will equal that record, and may go on to equal the all-time record of 24 set by Margaret Court by the time Wimbledon and the US Open are done.

She is even surprised—a little—by her own continuing success.

“No, when they were introducing me, they were like, ‘The 15th time’, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is too many.’ I was thinking that’s a lot.

“Sometimes I do think about some players, and I’m like, ‘I played them and now they’re like coaching and they have grandkids (laughing), you know?”

Her durability was thrown into still greater focus by the losses of two of the other top women in the draw, the most recent Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber and former No1 and two-time Australian champion Victoria Azarenka. The latter was tipped to be Williams’ quarter-final opponent and the former her semi-final opponent.

It was Kiki Bertens, winner on Nurnberg’s clay only last week, who upset Kerber, who by the end of their 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 tussle, seemed to be wrestling a shoulder problem as well as the Dutchwoman.

In truth, Kerber’s form has been hit and miss since her Australia victory over Williams, and her Stuttgart win was followed by opening losses in both Madrid and Rome. What’s more, Bertens came close to beating Kerber in Miami.

Her reward for causing the first big upset of the tournament will be a Round 2 match against Camila Giorgi.

Azarenka played Karin Knapp, who had scored one of her best wins in this very tournament in 2007. The No5 seed from Belarus, who has only this season begun to reclaim her position near the top of the rankings after dealing with extended injury problems, was nevertheless a different kettle of fish from that 2007 iteration, and few expected history to repeat… but it did.

Azarenka, who was hugely impressive through the North American hard-court swing, winning Miami and Indian Wells back-to-back and scoring wins over Williams and Kerber in the process, carried a back problem into Rome, where she lost her first match.

However, it seemed to be a knee problem that hampered her now, and she took a medical time out in the second set before pulling back to level the match in a tie-break. But now visibly distressed, Azarenka could not continue in the third and retired at 0-4 down.

With four Britons already into the second round in Paris—Andy Murray, Kyle Edmund, Aljaz Bedene and Heather Watson—it was down to the British women’s No1, Johanna Konta, enjoying her first seeding at a Grand Slam, and Laura Robson, playing on a protected ranking after almost two years of battling wrist injury, to try and join them.

But scheduled at the end of cool Tuesday, neither hit their best form against difficult opposition.

Neither woman is at their most comfortable on clay, and in truth, Robson, who had won just one tour match this season as she battled back via ITF tournaments, knew she had a fight on her hands against former top-10 German Andrea Petkovic. Sure enough, the No28 seed’s big game dominated Robson, 6-2, 6-2.

The 22-year-old Briton afterwards cut a despondent figure: “It’s hard to be positive right now. I feel like I had a lot of chances. There were a lot of games that went to deuce, and it was also my brain switching off at deuce every time, which sucks really. No other way of putting it.

“Yeah, so much to work on. First serve percentage needs to be better. Forehand strike needs to get better. Right now, very disappointed.”

Robson now heads to happier hunting grounds, and will expect to be eased onto home-soil grass tournaments with wild cards to help boost her confidence and ranking.

Johanna Konta, seeded 20, also faced a barrage of winners from a tall and powerful German, Julia Georges. It took the former top-15 player little more than an hour to put the Briton out of the tournament, 6-2 6-3, with 30 winners to just four from Konta.

She put on a brighter face than Robson had managed, but was clearly disappointed at her performance.

“I don’t think I quite found my footing fast enough, and I think she did very much so, and very early on. She’s a very, very good player in general, and I do think this is her best surface. She definitely exploited that. I didn’t do quite enough to make the match as competitive as I would’ve liked.

“I am a bit disappointed that I couldn’t get a hold in the match; however, I’m also very excited and motivated to keep improving. That’s really all I can do on a daily basis. I’m not going to beat myself up too much. I think it’s always important to be kind to yourself.”

Konta is still playing the women’s and mixed doubles in Paris before switching to the grass of home, where she made such strides last year.

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