PARIS, France - Six years after capturing the first Top 30 win of her career over Venus Williams at Roland Garros, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova reprised the result to snap a 12-match Grand Slam losing streak, defeating the former runner-up 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and six minutes of thrillingly contested mini-tussles and momentum shifts in this year's first round.
It marks the third consecutive win over Williams for the Slovak, and the first in straight sets, having needed to come from a set down to triumph 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in that 2014 second-round encounter and 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of Monterrey this February. Remarkably, it is also Schmiedlova's first win at Roland Garros since that year, and her first main draw victory at any major since the 2015 US Open. Since then, the 26-year-old has battled back from first a lengthy slump in 2016 and then knee surgery last year; after spending the Tour's shutdown getting involved in Postavme Sa Spoločne, an anti-racist campaign in her native Slovakia in response to the rise of the far right, Schmiedlova today displayed some of the form that took her to World No.26 in 2015.
It's quality that she has shown at Roland Garros against top players before: in 2015, she was the only player to take a set from Garbiñe Muguruza during the Spaniard's maiden Grand Slam title run, falling 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the first round; and last year at the same stage, Schmiedlova was two points from stunning No.1 seed Naomi Osaka before losing 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1. "I told my coaches I'm especially happy I made it here in Roland Garros, because it's my favourite tournament and I always dreamed about playing good here again," she told press afterwards, "It means a lot to me to manage to win here. I always play good here but I don't usually close it out."
Schmiedlova was a rare player on a cold, damp first day who admitted to enjoying her match despite the conditions, about which she was sanguine. "In tennis you never play a tournament where everything is easy," she said. "You never play a match where everything goes how you want it - well, sometimes, but it's very unusual. I just need to accept it and be as good as I can and be mentally tough - it's the only way you can win."
A narrowly contested first set that was too close to call until its final stages opened with three service holds before a run of five breaks in its last seven games as both players wound up playing their best tennis on return. Indeed, Schmiedlova would face at least one break point each time she stepped up to the line in the opening act - but would nonetheless manage to eke out the crucial holds at its business end.
Like the pair's 2014 clash, today's match pitted Williams's aggression against Schmiedlova's counterpunching. In the early stages, it was the American's willingness to come forward and unleash on return that would repeatedly garner her the lead - but as the set drew on, Schmiedlova would become increasingly confident at redirecting Williams's pace. Several thrilling exchanges resulted, with both players sending each other from corner to corner before finding space for a winning shot - with the Slovak's proficiency at finding ever more extreme angles proving crucial.
While Schmiedlova's service games were all deuce battles, the World No.161 displayed real fortitude to emerge on top of a marathon tussle to level at 4-4, sealing the hold with a forehand winner off an ill-advised dropshot. By contrast, Williams was unable to find the quality off the ground behind her serve that she could on return, with her final two service games of the set passing by all too quickly in a flurry of unforced errors. The 40-year-old would end the opening act with a pair of netted backhands to take her total for the set to 27.
The patterns of the first set remained in place as the second got under way with three straight breaks of serve - two quick ones of the Williams delivery as the former World No.1's forehand and serve buckled, bookending a lengthier tussle on the Schmiedlova serve in which ferocious returning and high topspin tactical adjustments both paid dividends for Williams.
It was Schmiedlova who pulled ahead, though, finally finding an authoritative service game as Williams continued to struggle - eventually tallying 47 unforced errors to 27 winners - and edging out to a 4-1 lead. At this point, though, the seven-time Grand Slam champion - whose best showing in Paris was a final run in 2002, but who has not reached the quarterfinals here since 2006 - displayed some of the formidable battling spirit she has become renowned for, ratcheting up her level to make the rest of the set a thrilling race to the finish.
This was something Schmiedlova had been expecting. Paying tribute to her legendary opponent afterwards, she said: "It's always difficult when you play against Venus - she's an incredible player and I always have big respect for her. But I made it today - I'm very happy, but still I appreciate all of her successes and her career. I will always respect her and playing against her is always very challenging."
Finding some of her best forehands of the day - as well as a delightful counterdrop - Williams reduced the deficit to 4-3. With the momentum suddenly wrested from her, Schmiedlova needed to respond - and did so in style, coming up with her own brilliance off the forehand wing with a perfectly weighted pass and a bold winner down the line to move to 5-3, and thence to double match point on the Williams serve.
Williams would save both in magnificent fashion, anticipating and cutting off a Schmiedlova crosscourt angle to send her own winner down the line on the first and displaying phenomenal defence to save the second. Serving at 5-4, with a determined Williams surging, Schmiedlova again needed to take matters into her own hands - and, on her third match point the three-time WTA titlist rose to the occasion, sending her 23rd winner of the day down the line to set up a second-round date with No.10 seed Victoria Azarenka.