Solid performances by seeded players against tricky opponents dominated the opening slate of first-round matches on Day 3 of Roland Garros.
No.5 seed Elina Svitolina came back from a 2-5 second-set deficit to defeat teenage wildcard Océane Babel 6-2, 7-5; No.25 seed Ons Jabeur triumphed in a feast of finesse over Yulia Putintseva 7-5, 6-2; and No.13 seed Jennifer Brady shook off her recent coaching switch-up to beat Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-3.
After easing to the first set against the junior World No.7, who first learned to play tennis on a Nintendo Wii, Svitolina nearly paid the price for a lapse in concentration in the second. Leaking 15 unforced errors, frequently from commanding positions in rallies, she dropped serve to fall behind 0-3.
An emboldened Babel began to go for her shots with greater confidence, finding particular success with the dropshot-pass combination. The 17-year-old had never played a WTA-level match or faced an opponent ranked higher than World No.198 before, but swiftly warmed to her task on Philippe-Chatrier.
Babel saved a total of 10 break-back points as she extended her lead to 5-2. But on the brink of being taken to a decider, Svitolina belatedly asserted her authority. The Ukrainian would lose only four more points as she reeled off the last five games, threading some superb passing shots along the way and finishing with a fine backhand volley.
"For sure it was challenging in some ways, because I don't know much about her going into the match," Svitolina said. "I just knew she was left-handed and I have to be ready for anything. In the end I think I started quite good, and then she was playing a little bit differently and then really raised her level."
First Round ☑️— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 1, 2021
Down a break at 2-5 in the second set, No.5 seed @ElinaSvitolina reels off five straight games to notch a 6-2, 7-5 victory over French wild card Babel. #RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/7Jopjqc4Mi
Jabeur, Brady navigate dangerous floaters
Jabeur and Brady had drawn two of the most dangerous unseeded opponents in their openers: two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist Putintseva and former US Open semifinalist Sevastova.
Both displayed stellar focus to come through in straight sets. Jabeur needed to battle hardest: a fluctuating first set saw both players throw all of their wide repertoires at each other, and Putintseva came back from 1-3 to serve for it at 5-4.
But the Kazakh's dropshot let her down as she failed to close it out, and two games later she also missed a simple volley to finish a thrilling cat-and-mouse point. With the first set under her belt, Jabeur ran away with the match, building a 5-0 lead and ultimately finding a brilliant pass to seal victory.
"I know she's a tough player," Jabeur said. "She plays really well, and she fights. She tries to hit a lot of dropshots at the beginning, but I knew she was going to do that. I was counting a lot on my serve but it wasn't there the beginning of the set. It's a tough first round, a lot of stress obviously, but I'm glad that I got to break her at the right time when she was serving for the set."
Jabeur will next have the chance to avenge a significant loss this season. The Tunisian's quest for a maiden title failed at the MUSC Health Women's Open, Charleston in April with a 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 loss to Astra Sharma in the final. There will be a rematch in the second round here after wildcard Sharma defeated qualifier Irina Bara 7-6(5), 6-2.
"I know a lot about her," Jabeur said. "She's a big server. I know she has a better forehand, so I'm just going to try to focus on myself this time. Definitely going for my revenge. I'm going to try to play good. No stress. To be honest, I'm just not trying to do the same mistake that I did last time."
Brady had not played since withdrawing from the second round of Rome due to a foot injury in the same week that she announced her split from coach Michael Geserer. The American has given Geserer plenty of credit for her surge in results over the past two years, which culminated in a run to her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in February.
In a first encounter with Sevastova, Brady was rock-solid. She struck 21 winners to 20 unforced errors, won 10 of 13 points at net, and after losing her serve in a marathon opening game was never broken again.
Afterwards, Brady opened up about her split from Geserer.
"I felt like basically what I would want or ask from him wouldn't be what he would want to do," she said. "It was nothing bad - I just felt like maybe it ran its course, and I didn't want to start to disrespect him on court or kind of ignore him or not listen to what he had to say. So I felt like it was time to just end it before I got to that point.
"Like I said before, what I would want or expect from him wouldn't be fair to him, so I think, considering the circumstances, things ended pretty well. I mean, if I saw him, it wouldn't be awkward or weird or anything."
In Paris, Brady is working with Brad Stine, who also coaches ATP World No.52 Tommy Paul.
"We'll share him at combined events," she said. "I know Brad really well. He was at the USTA when I was at the USTA. We don't have to really make any small talk or any awkward first impressions."
Ferro survives Liang, Li makes stunning comeback
Brady's next opponent will be French No.1 Fiona Ferro, who edged qualifier Liang En-Shuo in a 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 rollercoaster.
After dominating the first set in the opening match on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, Ferro fell apart in the second, tallying one winner to 17 unforced errors. But Liang, the 2018 Australian Open girls' champion making her Grand Slam main draw debut, played her own role in a third set that went down to the wire.
The World No.297 from Chinese Taipei had not lost a set in qualifying, and showed why as she took charge of rallies with her heavy forehand. Liang, 20, fired 26 winners to Ferro's 13 in total. But serving to stay in the match, a handful of inopportune errors let her down to let Ferro through.
Elsewhere, there was a welcome return to action from Ann Li. The 20-year-old American reached her first WTA final at the Grampians Trophy in February but has been out of action due to an abdominal tear since making the Monterrey semifinals in March.
Li needed only 46 minutes to dismiss Margarita Gasparyan 6-0, 6-1, striking 17 winners en route. The Russian is now on a six-match losing streak beginning with her retirement in the St. Petersburg final in March.
"I had to kind of step back," Li said afterwards. "I was in Orlando and took some time and really wanted to heal fully because an ab is a tricky spot. I had some good preparation on the clay there and when I came here I was really excited."
It was a first WTA-level main draw match on red clay for Li, who fell in the second round of Roland Garros qualifying last year to Kamilla Rakhimova in a 6-7(12), 7-6(4), 6-4 epic.
"It's funny, because I played on the same court - and the same ref - last year too, so I said, 'I gotta redeem myself'," Li said. "I like every surface. Last year on the red clay it was my first time here. I had to get used to it - a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit unfamiliar. I think I feel really good now. I came here a little bit earlier and prepared well, so I feel like I'm more comfortable now. I just need to trust my movement and it will be good."