The perks of winning a Grand Slam singles title are many, but the day before the French Open began defending champion Iga Swiatek scored a rare – and memorable – one.
Her practice partner for 20 minutes is looking for his record 14th title at Roland Garros, so the 20-year-old did her homework before taking the court with one of her idols.
“I had to prepare,” Swiatek said later. “Write some small topics, not to have awkward silence. But Rafa is really, really great. He’s a really nice guy. Even though I am pretty introverted, it was really fun for me. Obviously I got to feel his forehand, which was great, and his topspin.”
Yes, after posting a picture of Rafael Nadal with her in the gym in Rome, Swiatek had been hoping for a hit. Finally, it was arranged. This is something she’ll remember for some time, if not forever.
“That was a whole new experience for me,” Swiatek said. “It gave me a lot of positive energy. It was really a huge inspiration for me. It’s really nice to see such a champion being normal off court, and also telling jokes and being a little bit sarcastic.
“It’s really, really nice.”
That’s also a fair assessment of her start here at Roland Garros. After dispatching her friend, Kaja Juvan, in the first round, next up for the No.8 seed is Rebecca Peterson, a 25-year-old from Sweden. She needed three sets to get past Shelby Rogers and is seeking her first berth in Paris’ third round.
Swiatek and Peterson have never played.
Here’s more from Thursday’s second-round matches from the top half of the draw, which offer some intriguing and unconventional matchups:
Kenin feels Thiem’s pain
When No.4 seed Dominic Thiem crashed out in the first round, losing a five-set match to Pablo Andujar, No.4 seed Sofia Kenin could relate.
“Yeah,” she told reporters, “obviously I can. This year hasn’t been the best in terms of defending my title in Australia. Of course, surgery and everything else. We’re humans.
“Just because we won a Slam doesn’t mean we can’t have our downs for a little bit, for a little period of time. We can always go back up.”
That’s just what Kenin is hoping for in her first-time, second-round match against qualifier Hailey Baptiste, a fellow American, who at 19 is three years younger. Baptiste, ranked No.164, had played three ITF events before beating Anna Blinkova 6-1, 6-4 in the first round.
Kenin broke through by winning the 2020 Australian Open, then backed it up by reaching the French Open final last fall. The 2021 season has been more challenging; she was 7-8 coming into Paris and underwent an emergency appendectomy in Melbourne.
“I have no idea how she plays,” Kenin said. “I’ve never watched her. As of now and today, I’ll just kind of switch off. I can’t really think about tennis 24/7. You need to have some kind of break, some mini celebration.
“I feel like for me, this does a lot for my confidence. Tomorrow closer to the match and the day, I obviously will figure out a plan.”
Barty not 100 percent
It was apparent from the start of Ashleigh Barty’s first game at Roland Garros in two years that something was amiss. It required nine minutes as Bernarda Pera held serve and, later, a medical timeout raised further concerns.
The World No.1 prevailed by winning the last four games of a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 match, but admitted afterward that she wasn’t 100 percent healthy.
“It’s going to be a little bit tough this week,” Barty said later. “I think over the weekend we had a bit of a flare-up through my left hip, which obviously just needed a bit of help today, needed some assistance to try and release it off as best I could. Today was all about going out there and giving myself a chance and letting myself play with as much freedom as possible and enjoy every minute. We were able to do that today.”
Barty plays Magda Linette, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Chloe Paquet. This is a first-time match.
“I can guarantee that I will go out there with the right attitude every day and be really accepting of [not being 100 percent], and give it a crack no matter what,” Barty said. “I think it’s going to be tough now without a doubt.”
More research required
For the second straight opponent, No.5 Elina Svitolina doesn’t have any prior history to go on.
Svitolina defeated French wildcard Oceane Babel 6-2, 7-5 in the first round, but it wasn’t as simple as the score suggests. Babel, one of 11 teenagers in the main draw, was playing her first-ever Top 150 player. She was up 5-2 in the second set before losing the last five games.
“I just knew she was left-handed and I have to be ready for anything,” Svitolina said. “I think I started quite good, and then she was playing a little bit differently and then really raised her level. It was a good match for the first match because you have to be ready for a good start and to work your way into the match.”
Svitolina is a three-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.
Ann Li, her second-round opponent, will also require some research. The 20-year-old American defeated Margarita Gasparyan 6-0, 6-1. She’s ranked No.75 and has fashioned a sparkling 10-2 (.833) record for 2021. Li and Anett Kontaveit reached the finals of the Grampians Trophy event in Melbourne, but a delayed schedule prevented them from playing it.
Blast from the past …
Elite tennis is sometimes a small, small world.
No.17 Maria Sakkari plays Jasmine Paolini in the second round, and while the official head-to-head says they’ve never met, Sakkari reports otherwise.
“Last time we played was when I was 12 or 11,” Sakkari, now 25, told reporters. “A long time we haven’t played each other. As I always believe, everyone's tough. Everyone has their level of difficulty. It’s going to be a very tough match no matter what.”
Sakkari defeated Katarina Zavatska 6-4, 6-1, while the No.91-ranked Paolini defeated Stefanie Voegele 7-5, 6-1.
… On the other end of the spectrum
No.25 Ons Jabeur was asked Tuesday by a reporter what she knew about second-round opponent Astra Sharma.
“Oh, I know a lot about her,” Jabeur said, and then proceeded to break down Sharma’s strengths with uncanny detail.
Maybe that’s because they played less than seven weeks ago in the final of the MUSC Health Women’s Open in Charleston. Sharma, an Australian wildcard, won her first career title 2-6 7-5, 6-1.
“Definitely going for my revenge,” Jabeur said. “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 times.”
Local knowledge lifts Gauff
Coming off her singles and doubles title runs in Parma, 17-year-old Coco Gauff looked a little off kilter in her first-round match against qualifier Aleksandra Krunic. She fended off four set points before settling down and easing to a 7-6(11), 6-4 victory.
Gauff meets Wang Qiang, who defeated Hsieh Su-Wei 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, in a rematch of the Parma final.
“I was super nervous going into today's match, to be honest,” Gauff acknowledged after her opening win. “Just because I knew she’s a tricky player, and she went through qualies and had some matches behind her.
“I didn’t play my best today, but I’m happy that I was able to fight through it. You know, the first set was, there was many moments I could have gave up but I didn’t. I'm happy with the result today. The first rounds are probably some of the hardest matches in the tournament.”
When it comes to Roland Garros, Gauff has inside information. She won the girls' singles title three years ago and is one of 11 former junior French Open champions in the women’s draw this year. Eight of them, tellingly, made the second round – Gauff, Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina, Jabeur, Belinda Bencic, Daria Kasatkina, Paula Badosa and Leylah Fernandez.
Pliskova up next for Stephens
Sloane Stephens won an emotional first-round match 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 over Carla Suárez Navarro, who was playing her first match in the 15 months since revealing a diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Stephens will be tested in a second-round match against No.9 Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-4 in the opener. Stephens was a finalist at Roland Garros in 2018 and reached the Parma semifinals two weeks ago. Pliskova, a former semifinalist, reached the Rome final three weeks ago.