French Open 2019

French Open 2019: Top dogs Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal sail to Round 2

Novak Djokovic: I wanted to peak in this tournament and this is where I want to play my best tennis

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Opening Sunday brought a modest schedule, just eight courts in play, and the four top-12 men in action all cruised with very little trouble through to the second round.

No3 Roger Federer, of course, drew the crowds for his first match at Roland Garros in four years. No6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas brought his charismatic youthful style of tennis to Philippe Chatrier, and proved to be a popular choice: He had the look, perhaps, of a future champion. No7 Kei Nishikori and No11 seed Marin Cilic proved their Major-level credentials. All four were done and dusted in straight sets, with just one tie-break set among them.

But it would be Monday, and a packed schedule, that brought the two biggest guns in men’s tennis, the two top seeds, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, to Philippe Chatrier.

No2 seed Nadal, defending champion, arrived at Roland Garros as a teenager to win his first title in Paris at his first attempt in 2005. He went on to win 11 times, lose only twice in 88 matches, and garner a total of 58 clay titles—the most recent in Rome a week ago.

Unusually, Rome was his first title of the year, but his form was hitting its peak at just the right time. He dropped only six games in his first three matches and dropped just one set in the tournament altogether, to Djokovic in the final.

Yet world No1 Djokovic arrived here as the most likely to dethrone Nadal. The Serb reclaimed the No1 ranking—from Nadal—last autumn after a resurgent season that arguably began right here a year ago.

Now he heads the rankings by a country mile, won Madrid before running into Nadal in Rome, and has the added incentive of currently holding the other three Majors.

Winning his second French Open would give him the complete set for the second time in his career, and he made no secret of his desire for that milestone ahead of the tournament:

“This is the tournament that I was preparing for, so to say, for last couple of months. I wanted to peak in this tournament and this is where I want to play my best tennis. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but for me, there is an extra motivation and incentive to win Roland Garros because of the opportunity to hold all four slams, something I did three years ago in my career, and that gives me obviously enough reason to believe I can do it again.”

And while it is a long, long way off, should these two titans of tennis converge on the final day of the tournament, they would set another record for one of the most intense rivalries in their sport, their 27th tour final, and equal the Federer-Nadal record of nine Major finals.

But first things first. Nadal took on qualifier Yannick Hanfmann, and one had to hope that the German, debuting in the Paris draw, did not realise that the Spaniard had won 20 of his 21 matches against qualifiers at Majors. What is more, Nadal had never lost in the first round in Paris.

Hanfmann certainly made a fight of it in the first game of the match, taking Nadal to more than nine minutes via four break points before the champion held.

But the challenge was short-lived. Nadal broke and held for 3-0, and broke again for the set, 6-2. He went to 3-0 in the second, finally taking it 6-1, and with less than two hours on the clock, it was done and dusted, 6-3, without Nadal facing another break point.

He was satisfied but would not look too far ahead—as is always his way:

“Well, it was a first round, and I did a lot of things well. Not many mistakes. Being very solid all the time. [It is] of course the beginning and the first round is more about talking about what I have to do better… the general feeling is I have been positive this afternoon. Happy to be through with straight sets, positive feelings. Just happy for that.”

Nadal will again play a qualifier in the second round, Yannick Maden, with David Goffin lined up as his first seed. But further into his quarters, two key seeds were beaten while Nadal was sailing through his match.

No15 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili lost to Juan Ignacio Londero, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3, and Daniil Medvedev, seeded 12, lost out a marathon of almost four hours against Pierre-Hugues Herbert, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

The 2016 champion, Djokovic, had a rather more dangerous opening opponent, in 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, ranked 43, and up from 188 a year ago when he came through qualifying to reach the second round in Paris—his first Major appearance.

This season, he counted wins over Kei Nishikori, Denis Shapovalov, Dominic Thiem and Alex de Minaur. But he had never played Djokovic before, perhaps the ultimate measure of how far the Pole’s game had come in the last 12 months.

Sure enough, the world No1 broke quickly, but Hurkacz held off another testing challenge in the seventh game, 3-4, and forced Djokovic to serve it out, 6-4, after 40 minutes.

Djokovic repeated in the second set, broke for 2-1, and broke again for 4-1. Hurkacz scored an impressive break back, only to be broken to love courtesy of a double fault from the Pole. It left Djokovic to serve out the set, 6-2, and he wasted no time again in breaking in the first game of the third.

He was in ruthless mode, plying the corners, making precious few errors—yet those he did make drew a shake of the head. He sought perfection, picked up drops for touch winners, frustrated his opponent. And the set unfolded in a near identical form, another break for 5-2, and Djokovic served it out to love, 6-2, in little more than an hour and a half.

He was rightly very pleased with his performance:

“I like the fact that I had a very good quality opponent in the first round, because that gets me going with the right intensity from the start. You know, I’m focused, I’m determined, and sharp from the blocks. That’s what happened. Even though I never played him, I still felt he can be a great threat if I allow him to play his tennis. So I actually thought I played well. All the elements in my game worked well, so I’m very pleased.”

Djokovic next plays lucky loser Henri Laaksonen, and should face No26 seed Gilles Simon in the third round. The Frenchman was one a several successes for the home crowd, after beating Sergiy Stakhovsky, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

No13 seed Borna Coric, also in this quarter, came through a tough test against Aljaz Bedene in four sets.

In the bottom half, No24 seed and former champion Stan Wawrinka came through in four sets to meet Cristian Garin. Home favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga advanced to a meeting with Kei Nishikori, and his compatriot Benoit Paire will play fellow Frenchman Herbert in the second round. Richard Gasquet also flew the home flag with a win, and wild card Corentin Moutet set a second-round meet with No19 seed Guido Pella.

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