French Open 2020: Stan Wawrinka downs Andy Murray, Nishikori outlasts Evans

Teens Sinner and Gauff beat Goffin and Konta; Halep and Azarenka cruise to Round 2

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Andy Murray
Andy Murray (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It was promised, but that made the rain no more welcome as an optimistic French Open got underway in Paris.

It was cold, windy and wet for all concerned, and the layers of kit sported by the players for practice and warm-up preparations told their own story, as did the pre-tournament press conferences.

But then, this is just days short of October, and autumn was always going to make its presence felt—as the French Tennis Federation must have known when they seized this window in the depleted coronavirus schedule.

One blessing—or rather two: The main Philippe Chatrier stadium boasts a retractable roof for the first time, and all the courts have floodlighting—so the daily line-up can, in theory, be played to completion in the ever-shorter days following the autumn equinox. Unless rain stops play.

For those lucky enough to get a spot on Chartier, where up to 1,000 fans could provide a rare background atmosphere, there was at least certainty that matches could be completed.

For the rest, the conditions were truly formidable, as the opening games on Suzanne Lenglen between the in-form Victoria Azarenka and Danka Kovinic proved. Both women were bundled up in multiple layers, balls flew off racket frames, tarpaulins around the court flapped in the wind. They quickly gave in, and the match paused for almost an hour before it had barely begun.

But the tennis on Chatrier was enough to satisfy: a tasty opener between No11 seed David Goffin and the fast-rising NextGen star, Jannik Sinner. The first set produced some attractive all-court exchanges, with net-work, drop shots, and some nifty footwork by both players. There were, though, four breaks of serve on the way to 5-5, but gradually Sinner adjusted to hold, and then broke again for the hour-long first set, 7-5.

In the second, Sinner looked the more experienced, more solid player, mixing things up nicely, finding the corners, delivering at the net, and he raced to a 5-0 lead. Meanwhile, Goffin looked a shadow of himself, barely able to get a point on the board. With his 35th error, the Belgian offered up set point, and yet another netted backhand confirmed the bagel, 6-0 to Sinner.

The teenage Italian broke to go 3-0 up in the third set, too, making 11 games in a row, before Goffin finally held a game. Could the Belgian find any heat at all? Certainly not enough to slow the advance of Sinner, who won his debut match at Roland Garros, the first men’s match of the tournament, and the first under the new Chatrier roof, 6-3.

Next under the roof was top seed and former champion Simona Halep, and she was not the only player to make a slow start. She went down an immediate break to Sara Soribes Tormo, but she soon warmed up to level at 4-4, and broke to serve out the first set, 6-4. A swift break at the start of the second, and she was on her way: one win of the seven needed to reclaim the No1 ranking.

For those on the outside courts, it was a miserable affair, with stops and starts as the rain came and went, making for cold, heavy conditions. Azarenka continued her hot September form in New York to return after an hour’s hiatus to take the victory in 61 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, and was soon followed into the second round by fellow seeds Maria Sakkari and Elise Mertens.

There was also an intriguing match between the top-ranked Briton Dan Evans against the former No4 Kei Nishikori, who had played only three matches since elbow surgery a year ago. The Japanese man won only one of those, in Rome last week, and looked flat against the variety of the 32-seeded Evans.

But after dropping the opener 6-1, Nishikori won the second 6-1, and after a short break for rain, took an early lead in the third. Evans dug in to turn it around, levelled 5-5, and broke to serve for the set—only to be broken back. Evans was then outplayed in the tie-break, losing it 7-6(3).

Yet Evans regained his first-set form for a 3-0 lead in the fourth, and levelled the match, 6-1. The final set produced some very fine exchanges, first with Nishikori going 3-0, then Evans showing all his flair and touch to level. It was nip and tuck to the closing stages, but was finally edged by the Japanese star, 6-4 after more than three and three-quarter hours.

The most anticipated match of the day, and of the entire first round, was between two old rivals with three Major titles apiece. What is more, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka had last met at Roland Garros in 2017, a semi-final that will long live in the memory. The Swiss won in a marathon five sets, but it would be a significant turning point for both.

Murray posted on social media ahead of this year’s draw:

“Been a long journey to get back on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Three-and-a-half years since I played @stanwawrinka85 in a brutal five-set semi-final, which turned out to be the end of my hip.”

He referred to his two subsequent hip surgeries: Indeed Murray had not played a clay match since—until this opening Sunday in a cold, late September Paris. It so happened that Wawrinka also needed long months out to undergo double knee surgery, and subsequently suffered a number of other niggles to back and groin.

Even so, the two men had played one another in each year since 2017, both wins for Murray, but this was the first in almost a year. But could it possibly live up to that last Roland Garros encounter?

From the off, Wawrinka looked the more comfortable, breaking Murray in a long third game, and then breaking again to lead 5-1. The Swiss broke again for the set, 6-1, and continued his run of points to hold the first game in the second set.

Wawrinka looked entirely unfazed by the 16C temperature and heavy balls: His power penetrated the court, yet he also found his range around the net. It all earned him a break for 4-2 and he went on to serve out the set, with little more than an hour on the clock, 6-3, and 30 winners to his name.

Murray’s first-serve level needed to rise dramatically from its sub-40 percent, but his subdued body language was not helped by a break in the second game of the third set. A superior Wawrinka went on to break again, and he served out victory with an ace, 6-2.

Murray was obviously disappointed with his performance, but would not blame the conditions and admitted that his serving level needed attention:

“I need to have a long, hard think about it. It’s not the sort of match I would just brush aside and not give any thought to. There are obviously reasons behind a performance like that. I think in terms of score-line, I might be wrong, that’s the worst defeat maybe of my career in a Grand Slam… So I should be analyzing that hard and trying to understand why the performance was like that.”

There was disappointment too for the third Briton playing on opening Sunday. Johanna Konta lost 6-3, 6-3, to the brilliant 16-year-old Cori Gauff, in an error-strewn performance that fell far short of the tennis that took her to the semi-finals in Paris last year.

The top-ranked British woman and No9 seed made 41 errors to 22 winners. She was frank in her assessment:

“Unfortunately I just didn’t play very well [laughing]… It’s unfortunate that it happened here but, yeah, I just didn’t play too well.”

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