French Open 2018 Journal Days One And Two: Shocks And Pressure

After two days of Roland Garros action, stories such as Marco Trungelliti’s nine hour drive to Paris to beat Bernard Tomic are already grabbing headlines. Still, the results that have occurred and the tennis that has been played are what will really be remembered when we reach the final weekend of the tournament.

Novak Djokovic’s campaign got off to a winning start, an injured Stan Wawrinka’s loss to Guillermo Garcia Lopez will see him drop out of the world’s top 250, and Caroline Wozniacki hinted that she might be one to watch in France after all. Besides these, here are some of the main occurrences of the opening days of action – with some commentary.

The French Open rolls around in no time, as the years pass by in the blink of an eye. But big changes still happen. Twelve months ago, 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko was the world no. 43, without a single WTA title to her name, and charging towards her maiden major trophy with all-out aggressive tennis. On Sunday, she was tumbling out of the competition in round one to big-serving Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova: 7-5 6-3.

Ostapenko has always played a high-risk game. It is the only way she wins, and – in a way – it is the only way she loses. The Latvian struck 22 winners to a ghastly 48 unforced errors during her straight sets loss, compared to just 13 winners and 22 unforced errors hit by world no. 67 Kateryna Kozlova. Her low percentage approach to the game means that the now-20-year-old will always rack up a high number of misses, but the woman herself was appalled by her display on Court Philippe Chatrier – with her unaccomplished opponent possessing the better mentality on the day.

Despite calling Ostapenko to be an early casualty, I did not truly expect her to crash out in round one – becoming just the sixth defending champion in WTA history to do so. But all things considered, it makes total sense. As her world no. 5 ranking displays, the big-hitting former junior star backed up her maiden major title decently in its immediate aftermath, and has won her first WTA title since Parisian glory in 2017. Nevertheless, she has struggled to get a rhythm going for the majority of this season: particularly on clay, where she has a mere five 2018 wins. The total number of her losses on dirt this year now stands at three, after – out of form, and out of experience – she crumbled under the “unbelievable pressure” of returning to a Grand Slam event as the woman in the spotlight.

Just because she handled the occasion so dreadfully, it does not mean that Ostapenko – who will plummet down the rankings – does not possess the quality of a top player. Having flopped does not make her “A Flop”. This is a harsh learning experience. And as the youngster posted online after her defeat: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

This saying has been proven many times over for another top player who crashed out on Day One – albeit less unexpectedly. Venus Williams – after a stellar 2017 season featuring two Grand Slam finals – is still yet to get going this season, and the seven-time major champion entered the fortnight without a single clay-court match win to her name. The American has tasted defeat on the opening day of the French Open before, and her 6-4 7-5 loss to flat-hitting Qiang Wang of China was hardly surprising – to me – by the end of the match.

There was little in the contest according to the statistics. No. 9 seed Williams three percent behind on first serve percentage, and compiled 28 winners to 35 unforced errors, with Wang securing a cleaner 19 winners to 14 unforced errors. It all suggests that the match, as it often is, was on the seeded player’s racquet.

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Despite her lack of accomplishments on clay in comparison to other surfaces, Venus has reached a French Open final, and still has the talent to do legitimate damage on the surface. But people forget that the 37-year-old is in constant combat with a debilitating autoimmune disease, and the effects of her efforts in 2017 may now be making themselves known. If she continues to struggle when she touches down at Wimbledon, then it will be time to get seriously concerned about the all-time legend’s form. For now, she gets a chance to slow down, breathe out, and assess her game and approach.

Meanwhile in Paris, several players will be eyeing an opportune quarter of the draw – now bereft of notable names in Ostapenko, Venus, Johanna Konta, and even two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka.

For the men of the competition, one the biggest results of round one thus far also came on Sunday, with Alexander Zverev blasting through to round two in straight sets. This time last season, Zverev was seeded at a major tournament for the first time, and fell in frustration to tricky customer Fernando Verdasco in four sets. But his no. 2 seeding shows the leaps and bounds that the German has made since then, and his 6-1 6-1 6-2 annihilation of Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis spoke volumes as to his intent. While Rafael Nadal is yet to complete his first round match, neither he, Dominic Thiem or Novak Djokovic have dropped so few games in their opening encounters.

Compared to 2017, the biggest difference in Zverev is that he is a much more mature player. The way he handles himself during matches, and the way he deals with wider situations, is generally much calmer and more intelligent than previously. He has always had the big serves, the full game and the penetrating groundstrokes, but now the world no. 3 is building firmer foundations on which to develop these physical elements.

What has not changed for the younger Zverev brother is the fact that he has not reached the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam event, or beaten a top 50 opponent on any of these stages. Halting the world no. 102 is massively different to beating the world no. 12 – in terms of pressure and expectation, if nothing else. His runs to the Madrid Open title and the Rome Masters final have earmarked Zverev as a true Roland Garros contender this year, but the 21-year-old needs to prove his ability over best-of-five sets. A marathon win over a seeded opponent could herald the Grand Slam breakthrough that has been beckoning, and one more victory could put him in the position to accomplish that.

Whatever happens, something feels different about this event for Alexander Zverev. Opportunity knocks.

OTHER STUFF FROM DAYS ONE AND TWO

THE BEST AVOIDED UPSET OF DAYS ONE AND TWO came about when Petra Kvitova – seeded no. 8 – fended off world no. 89 Veronica Cepede Royg 3-6 6-1 7-5 on Monday. The lethal lefty is a strong contender for ultimate glory after claiming silverware in Stuttgart and Madrid already this year, but her campaign was nearly called off early as she struggled against the aggressive rallying of Cepede Royg.

Kvitova was hot and cold during the clash – putting her foot on the gas during the second set, but flailing a little more at the start of the third. Still, she was not lucky to come through – but, effectively, more precise in her timing than she was with her groundstrokes or serve. The Czech peaked when it mattered, and pulled herself together from 4-5 down in the decider to secure her victory. Her fight saw her through once again, and the extra time on court could benefit her later in the tournament.

THE MOST HIGH PROFILE UNFINISHED CLASH OF DAYS ONE AND TWO will continue between defending champion Rafael Nadal and qualifier Simone Bolelli on Tuesday. The match was stalled with Nadal up 6-4 6-3 in sets, but with Bolelli leading 3-0 in the third. It was the second set in a row in which the experienced Italian grabbed the early break.

Nadal is obviously the extremely heavy favourite to triumph in Paris for an 11th time, and his draw could not look much rosier, but he is not invincible. On Court Philippe Chatrier, Bolelli and his one-handed-backhand came out attacking from the offset, belting angles on his groundstrokes which the Italian followed up to the net. He had the Spaniard on the ropes several times, but Nadal was always calm and clutch in the key moments – and 99.9 percent of people will be expecting him to book his spot in round two once play resumes.

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK OF DAYS ONE AND TWO was accomplished by 21-year-old Jaume Munar of the Rafa Nadal Academy. The Spaniard was up against one of the most respected players from his nation in David Ferrer. The gritty baseliner’s career has stopped and stalled somewhat over the past few years, after reaching his lone French Open final in 2013 and peaking at no. 3 in the rankings. All the same, to come back from 6-3 6-3 down against him is still a remarkable feat for a relative unknown.

Munar did this in a deeply impressive manner, coming good in the pressure moments of the final three sets to triumph 3-6 3-6 7-6(3) 7-6(4) 7-5. A great maiden Grand Slam victory for the NextGen player, but there is no time to rest on his laurels. Novak Djokovic awaits.

THE MOST DOMINANT VICTORY OF DAYS ONE AND TWO was Carla Suarez Navarro’s 47 minute dismantling of former junior world no. 1 Ana Konjuh: 6-0 6-1.

The no. 23 seed this fortnight, Suarez Navarro slipped out of the singles top ten a good while ago and has completely dropped off the doubles rankings. But with that thumping victory, the one-handed-backhander has reminded the tennis world that she well and truly exists.

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