PARIS, France - No.8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova began her French Open fortnight with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Christina McHale to advance into the second round.
"It was really, really tough," Kuznetsova said after the match. "I wasn't playing so good. When you're so nervous, you kind of gotta relax and just play the game. I felt like I was playing against myself."
Champion in 2009 and a runner-up in 2006, the Russian veteran came to Paris among the chief contenders for this year's title, having reached the semifinal at the Mutua Madrid Open and the finals in Indian Wells.
"It's Paris. I'm always nervous in Paris. I always love to play here and I wish to do great. I want it so much and then sometimes it's hard. I prefer to think that it's like, I don't know, a smaller tournament.
McHale threatened to undo that narrative in spectacular fashion; the American won two of their three previous meetings - though their last match was in 2012 - and kept things close against Kuznetsova throughout the two hour and five minute match.
"It was a long one. Each game, it felt like I had break points all the time and I just couldn't make them.
"It was not really humid, but it was really hot. And the balls on the court were bouncing a lot. Normally it's good for me, but today I think everything was bad for me because I was just playing with my nerves.
"I have to relax to play better next matches because it's too much tension."
Saving a set point down 3-5, McHale broke the Russian as she served for the opening set, only for the former World No.2 to return the favor and serve it out on the second time of asking.
Kuznetsova road the ensuing momentum into a 4-2 lead in the second, holding three break points for a crucial double break. McHale saved all three and promptly broke in the next game to level, but the match ended much like it began, and the Russian swept the final two games to clinch her spot in the second round.
"On the changeover for 5-4 I thought it was 4-3. I heard it was 5-4, and that meant I just had to serve for the match. So the umpire got me really happy.
"I'm like, 'What is the score?' He's like, '5-4.' I'm like, 'Oh, good.' And he looked at me like I was from another planet.
"It looked to me better because I couldn't win my service games, and I got so happy that I was able to finish it. I mean, it was a really difficult match for me."
In the end, she hit 34 winners to 32 unforced errors, and while McHale managed 21 winners of her own, she was undone by 30 unforced errors.
"It's a little bit that it's not one clear player who is winning everything like Serena, for example, or somebody who is like playing great like Maria. But other players are very good. I mean, Simona is playing great. Svitolina is playing great. Who else? I don't know. I forgot the girls.
"Many players can play great, and I think that it's also nice. Every time you can find something good about it."
Up next for Kuznetsova is the winner of what promises to be battle of big hitters as hometown favorite Océane Dodin takes on Camila Giorgi.
"I have lots of friends here who trying to give me advice on my tennis, what I have to do and why I'm not doing that. And it's very difficult to explain to people who are sitting there and watch and see everything from a different perspective. When you never through that, when you're never there. It's difficult.
"I will try to relax but hopefully it's going to get better. Normally it's better second round, but I don't want to say anything because we'll see."