French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Johanna Konta’s quest for first win in Paris thwarted; Venus Williams also makes exit

British no1 Johanna Konta and American veteran Venus Williams both exit at the first hurdle in Paris

British no1 Johanna Konta Photo: The Sport Review

It begins gently, the French Open, with just eight courts in competitive action on opening Sunday.

That does not mean there was any lack of quality on offer on a hot and steamy Paris afternoon. On the women’s side alone, for example, three Major champions would begin their campaigns: the reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, former Wimbledon and US champion, Venus Williams, and Roland Garros’s defending champion, Jelena Ostapenko.

The fresh-faced Latvian announced herself on the big tennis stage while still a teenager. Having reached the first round across the board of all four Majors in 2016, she made the third round in Australia and New York, the quarters in Wimbledon and the top of the podium in Paris in 2017.

She turned 20 just two days before her sweep to the title with her characteristically aggressive tennis to pick up her first tour title and ranked only just inside the top 50. This year, she arrives as the No5 seed, having ticked off plenty more new milestones: Her first WTA title in Seoul, her first WTA Finals, and her first Premier Mandatory final in Miami just a couple of months ago.

Through it all, she has maintained a remarkable assurance and confidence, clearly very comfortable with her higher profile and the expectations that come with Major success. Ahead of her opener back in Paris against the No66 ranked Kateryna Kozlova, she admitted:

“Actually, when I won it last year, I realised maybe just a couple of months after that I had to get used to this new status that I’m a Grand Slam champion. I mean, now, of course, it’s great, this feeling.

“[But] people just expect more from you, and there is more attention from everybody. And also from players’ side, every player you play wants to beat you.”

In fact, it was an intriguing opener: Kozlova had won both of their previous meetings, one on the ITF circuit in 2014 and again in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2016. Of course, that was then: Ostapenko had moved on apace while Kozlova has yet to win a title, and entered only her second Roland Garros match with four first-round losses for the year and without any matches on clay at all.

Venus Williams may never have won the French Open, but her record as she approached her 38th birthday remained formidable beyond the bounds of Wimbledon and the US Open, where she had accumulated seven singles Majors.

Runner up at Roland Garros in 2002, she had twice won the doubles title in Paris with her sister, and her return close to the top of her game in the last eighteen months made her impossible to write off. Last year, she made the final in Australia and Wimbledon, the semis at the US Open and the fourth round in Paris.

This year, the North American hard courts had proved profitable, though thus far she had won only one match on clay. But she had a decent draw in the early stages, despite a possible clash with Ostapenko in the quarter-finals. Before that, though, would Williams come up against Briton Johanna Konta for the eighth time, and their first at Roland Garros?

The biggest question surrounded Konta, not because of her record against Williams but because of her record at Roland Garros. Three times she has played the main draw—having failed to get through qualifying in 2013 and 2014—and three times she has lost in the first round.

Her record stood out because she broke the top 10 back in 2016, had picked up a Premier Mandatory title, and made the semis of two Majors. She topped out at No4 less than a year ago, but injury problems late last year contributed to a slip in rankings and confidence this year, and she played both Madrid and Rome unseeded. In the latter, though, there were signs of light at the end of tunnel—she pressed Ostapenko to three sets in the third round, but was seeded 22 in Roland Garros.

She had played her first opponent, No93 Yulia Putintseva, twice and won twice—on clay, too. Could this be the year she overcame her big hurdle?

In the early games, both women looked secure, a love hold each, a drop shot here and a volley there. Konta’s served seemed solid—she twice aced for another love hold, 2-2, and staved off break point with more good serving, 3-3. Putintseva held to love, and then broke through in a long eighth game, 5-3.

Konta roared herself to a break back, only for the petite Kazakh to break again as the Konta forehand cranked up the errors: it was 6-4, in 43 minutes.

The second set was tight, with a break on both sides, but while Putintseva steadied the ship with a love hold, Konta’s forays to the net were punished with a couple of great passing shots, one a cross-court pick-up for another break, 3-1, and then a running forehand on her way to an easy hold, 4-1.

And there was no looking back. Konta piled up the errors—she would end with twice as many as her opponent—and Putintseva served out the win, 6-3, courtesy of another backhand wide from the Briton.

She admitted: “I never really quite found my rhythm, my way of playing. Some of that is to do with her, she played quite smart. She runs well, gets a lot of balls back, I was trying to take her time away, and unfortunately I couldn’t do it well enough.”

So the lack of success at Roland Garros continues for Konta, after an hour and 24 minutes, and by the time she left Court 1, Williams had also lost, leaving the biggest hole in the draw.

And the American lost to the same woman she had put out here last year, Wang Qiang, 6-4, 7-5: It was the Chinese woman’s second ever top-10 win. It was well deserved, too, with just 14 errors to 19 winners, while an off-kilter Williams made 35 errors. The American expressed in her characteristically brief style:

“There really are no perfect days in tennis, so you have to be ready to play no matter what.”

The top-ranked seed in the Konta and Williams quarter, No4 Elina Svitolina, looked in real danger of making her earliest ever exit at Roland Garros, when she trailed Ajla Tomljanovic 5-1 in the first set. The Ukrainian has twice been a quarter-finalist in Paris, and has been one of the form women of the season: She won Rome, Dubai and Brisbane as well as making the quarters at the Australian Open.

But she turned things around with a run of seven games to win 7-5, 6-3, after almost an hour and a half. She was not fazed by her opening: She planned, she said, to go straight out and practise some more:

“I know that I have to put lots of hours on court to get better and, for me, the only way to get better is to practise… to improve my game each day, each match.”

No26 seed Barbora Strycova faced an even tougher test, coming through after two and a half hours, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. She is sure to be tested again in a tough segment headed by Ostapenko, and with unseeded Victoria Azarenka and Ekaterina Makarova.

There were also wins for No10 seed Stephens, 6-0, 6-2, over Arantxa Rus, for No25 seed Anett Kontaveit over Madison Brengle, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, and for No32 seed Alize Cornet over Sara Errani, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

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