French Open 2019: Former champ Muguruza wins, Pliskova also through; Kerber and Williams fall at first hurdle

Muguruza on winning in Paris: “It’s a puzzle that you’ve got to put together, and it’s not easy”

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Paris

It begins gently, like the light breeze that trickled around the new bleached-wood stands of the Roland Garros show courts.

Twitter has been replete with compliments about the elegant, blond, Philippe Chatrier revamp, and the brand-new Simonne Mathieu, a sunken gem surrounded by glass canopies in keeping with its garden setting.

Both courts were among just eight that would host first-round matches as the French Open worked its way up to full speed, but there was nothing light-weight about the players who would fill its opening schedule.

Of the top men, No3 seed Roger Federer, playing his first match at Roland Garros since 2015, would be the standard-bearer for the biggest names in men’s tennis: No1 Novak Djokovic and No2 Rafael Nadal would keep their powder dry for the following days.

Federer was the only former champion and former No1 among the men’s Sunday line-up, but turning to the women’s matches, the schedule was packed by both former champions and former No1.

No5 seed Angelique Kerber, No2 seed Karolina Pliskova, and No19 seed Garbine Muguruza were all assigned show courts, and rightly so. Pliskova arrived in great clay form with the prestigious Rome title in the bank; Muguruza was a former French Open champion—and a Wimbledon champion to boot—while Kerber had won at all three other Majors. All that was missing for Kerber to seal that rare thing, the career Grand Slam, was the French Open. And last year, she reached the quarter-finals for just the second time.

Kerber, indeed, had an outside chance of reclaiming the No1 ranking, though that depended on current No1 Naomi Osaka not reaching the quarters. And her chances looked good of overcoming her least successful surface when she was drawn against a Roland Garros debutant, the 81-ranked 18-year-old, Anastasia Potapova.

However the popular German had been carrying an injury through the clay swing, did not play Rome and pulled out of her Round 2 match in Madrid. Was she ready for the heavy hitting of a young Russian eager for her first top-10 win?

The answer came rather too quickly. She lost the first set 6-2, and was 4-0 down before an hour had passed on the clock. She did not run with her usual energy for drop shots, managed not one ace, and was struggling to second-guess Potapova. The crowd tried to lift her, and she managed a break in fifth game to halt the flow, but it was a temporary reprieve. After a hold for 2-4, she was broken again for set and match, 6-2, to the young Russian.

Kerber had made just 16 winners for 21 errors, while Potapova had 28 winners to her credit. Needless to say, the German was disappointed but pragmatic:

“I mean, of course I’m disappointed, but I tried everything the last two weeks to be here to play a match, and, I was happy about the process the last days, but in the end, I didn’t have matches… At the end, I really don’t have too much expectation for this tournament.”

Kerber’s Slam must wait, and she admitted that she would need to reassess the treatment to foot and ankle in preparation for the grass season. Meanwhile, the Russian next takes on Yafan Wang or Marketa Vonrousova.

Muguruza had the honour of christening the new Simonne Mathieu arena, named in tribute to the two-time former singled champion in Paris: Mathieu’s tennis career was cut short by the break out of World War 2.

It looked initially as though the tall Spaniard, who has struggled to maintain her elite standing in the last year—the 25-year-old is currently ranked No19—might go the way of Kerber when she lost her opening set 7-5. And she, too, had been suffering from a physical problem before Paris, lost in the first round of Madrid, and retired against Victoria Azarenka in the third round in Rome.

However, Muguruza soon righted the ship in the second with an early break, and levelled things with the set, 6-2. And her Roland Garros credentials came to the fore in the third set. After all, here was a woman who, still only age 25, reached the quarter-finals five years ago and again in 2015, won in 2016, and made the semis last year.

Her opponent, the 96-ranked Taylor Townsend, ran out of steam in the third as Muguruza powered on, even taking to the net to finish points. She led 5-2, and served out the match to love after two hours with a perfect drop-shot, her 37th winner of the match.

She talked afterwards of what it takes to win at Roland Garros:

“Obviously a very complete player. I think to win a Grand Slam you don’t only have to play beautiful and have great shots. It’s a combination of having the X-factor, because everybody plays well, but only few can win Grand Slams… I think a very complete player, having the courage, having the consistency of winning many matches, dealing with the pressure. It’s a puzzle that you’ve got to put together, and it’s not easy.”

Muguruza will next play Johanna Larsson, who beat Magdalena Rybarikova, 6-3, 6-4.

And beyond that there could have been another No1 in the third round, a woman who needs no introduction to the tennis world.

Venus Williams has won seven Majors and reached nine more Major finals—including Roland Garros—in a remarkable career. She arrived in Paris this year for the 22nd time, and was playing in a record 82nd Major, and despite her renown at Wimbledon, she sat third among active players for the most clay titles, nine of them, behind sister Serena and Maria Sharapova.

But currently ranked 52, and the oldest woman in the draw—Williams will turn 39 next month—she had picked up a tough draw that brought No9 seed Elina Svitolina to court.

The 24-year-old Ukrainian had twice made the quarters in Paris, however this year, the young player arrived without a single win on clay following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome.

It was, however, billed as one of the blockbuster women’s contests of the first round, their third meeting, but would last just 73 minutes as the younger woman outplayed and outran the veteran, 6-3, 6-3.

At the very bottom of the draw, Pliskova needed only an hour to bet Madison Brengle, and will next play qualifier Kristina Kucova, who put out Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 6-2. Asked if she felt extra pressure from becoming one of the favourites for the title, Pliskova said:

“Maybe a little bit, but I feel good, so there is no reason why I should feel extra pressure or why I should be nervous from this. It’s only positive. Because I’m having good season, so of course there’s going to be pressure that I have to go far in the tournaments… Of course, this one is so far the best, but always there is some kind of pressure, so I’m fine with that.”

But the last word goes to Svitolina, and whether she expects to still be playing at Williams’ age:

“No. Definitely no. It takes lots of willpower, I think. It’s amazing what she does and how she still keep going and still motivated to play. Even today, I was playing against her and thinking, you know, I’m not sure I will be here playing at that age. But she’s a great player. Still can challenge everyone on tour.”

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