The shock defeats of a 20-year-old and 37-year-old gave us the biggest storyline of the first day of the French Open 2018. One was the defending champion who had stunned all winning her first title at a Grand Slam, the other a battle-hardened veteran on the tennis tour who has never lifted a major on the red clay. Both ended up losing in straight sets after an error-strewn display on the first day of the second Grand Slam of the year.
While Jelena Ostapenko looked a shadow of her fearless self from last year, Venus Williams struggled to maintain her focus and accuracy.
While the defending champion looked like she was carrying the burden of expectations on her shoulders, the ninth seed looked like her shoulders had carried enough. Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine stunned the Latvian 7-5, 6-3 while Venus was beaten 6-4 7-5 by world number 91 Wang Qiang of China.
While both were major upsets on the first day of Roland Garros, it just added to the overall unpredictability of the women’s draw. The losses, to virtually unknown opposition, were a lesson in just how tough it is in the women’s tennis right now.
As the preview said, it is an open field and with the two seeds going out from the same quarter, we will now have at least one first-time French Open semi-finalist next week.
Ostapenko buckles under pressure
Given her exploits last year on the red dirt, it is easy to forget that Ostapenko is only 20 and still inexperienced. Add to that the pressure of defending a Grand Slam, with all eyes on you, and it comes as little surprise that the Latvian looked as bogged down as she did on Sunday.
To quote tennis journalist Christopher Clarey, who had gone to her hometown of Riga with her to see how life changed since that triumph, she looked like she was weighed down. The fifth seed is only second Roland Garros champ and the sixth woman in the Open era to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament as defending champion,
Known for her aggressive hitting, Ostapenko struggled to keep things in control with 48 unforced errors, including 13 double faults: the exact opposite of the style that won her the trophy last year. The 20-year-old said it was a bad day and she wasn’t able to serve properly or recover completely from an injury due to a Sunday start, fact remains that it was Kozolova who played better tennis and capitalized in whatever chances she got. Credit where it is due.
In fact, the 66th-ranked Kozlova came into the match having played and lost just once on clay this year, in Nuremberg last week, which was her first appearance on the tour since February because of a right knee injury.
Even in this match, she needed a lengthy medical timeout at the end of the first set to treat blisters which looked painful. But she sensed the opportunity and didn’t give in, even when she was a break down in the second right after her medical break.
The Ukrainian has made a case for herself with this giant-killing act and with a potential match up with Victoria Azarenka next, it sets up an interesting quarter.
The fault in Venus
In 2017, Venus Williams was runner-up at two Grand Slams and the WTA Finals in 2017, going down to Serena at the Australian Open, Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon, and Caroline Wozniacki at the season-ending tournament.
Yet, the bigger storyline was not the runner-up players but how the 36-year-old was back among the best, finishing the year in the Top 5. With Serena on maternity leave, there was still a Williams making deep inroads in women’s tennis.
But after setting the Open Era record for the longest span (20 years) between Grand Slam singles final appearances last year, in 2018, she has reached a personal low – losing in the first round of two consecutive Grand Slams for the first time in her 21-year long career. She was beaten by Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic in the opening round of the Australian Open.
When the ninth seed was down a set against China’s world 91 Wang Qiang in the first round of the French Open on Sunday, there was a sense of foreboding. For all the remarkable resilience the 37-year-old has shown throughout her career, it didn’t look like she could pull through. It looked like time was finally catching up with the veteran.
Wang had plated Venus in the first round of Roland Garros last year as well, and could only stretch her to a tiebreaker in the second set as she went down in straight sets. The two met again in the second round of Wimbledon. This time, the Chinese player took the first set, before bowing down to the grit of the American who won 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
But on Sunday, it was Wang who showcased all the grit as she held her never and maintained the pressure right from the start, even as Venus made uncharacteristic errors – 35 unforced in total, to her 28 winners. And while Wang had only 19 winners, she made only 14 unforced errors which proved to be the difference.
This difference could be seen from the very first game, when the first service game went on for 12 minutes with seven deuces before Wang finally converted her sixth breakpoint. And while Venus broke right back, and kept her self alive, that start was enough for the young Chinese to gain confidence. It didnt help that the 37-year-old double faulted on break points at the end of both sets.
But what made it even more remarkable was that it was Wang’s only second win over a Top-10 player in only her second year playing on clay.
Even as she caused the first big upset, Wang has done enough for people to take notice of her with her swift game. Bencic, after upsetting Venus in Australia, had lost in the next round. Will the young Asian go the same way, or is there more to see here. With women’s tennis, the fun is in the ride, more than the result.