The French Open was never one of Venus Williams’s favourite tournaments, nor did she relish playing on its unforgiving clay. And, after losing in straight sets to Elina Svitolina in the beguilingly tranquil new Court Simonne-Mathieu on Sunday, the American, who turns 39 next month, might decide that 22 visits are quite enough.
She has been coming to Paris since 1997, two years longer than Roger Federer has, but for scant dividends. If she decides not to return, she can at least look back on reaching the final in 2002 when her sister Serena beat her 7-5, 6-3. However, on opening day this time, Svitolina, the ninth seed, beat her more handily than that, 6-3, 6-3.
Although there were flashes of her undoubted brilliance, it was hardly a brass-band farewell on the tournament’s lovely new court, and Williams later gave perfunctory answers to a few standard questions, then was gone. She has her own way, of course, and tons of pride, so she was never going to fill in the gaps just for the sake of it.
Yes, she agreed, Svitolina outplayed her, and, no, there was not a lot she could have done about it on the day.
“I thought she played well and took her opportunities,” Williams said. “I wish her luck in the tournament. When something is not working, you do try and change it. Maybe a few too many unforced errors today.”
Svitolina, a quarter-finalist here in 2015 and 2017, can look forward to a less demanding match in the next round, against the Ukrainian world No 66 Kateryna Kozlova, who beat the American qualifier, Bernarda Pera, 6-2, 7-6 (5) in an hour and a half.
Svitolina, who has had a tough time with a nagging knee injury since Indian Wells and was unable to defend her title in Rome, where she lost to Victoria Azarenka in her first match (she also lost in the first round in Madrid), was relieved to go through to the second round.
“I didn’t really think about my losing streak,” she said later, “because I think all the matches that I played, except Madrid maybe, were close and I felt not too bad. I didn’t lose any confidence, and I think this mindset really helped me today to play well under pressure. It was quite a tough match. Venus, sometimes, was playing unbelievable.”
Asked if she could imagine herself playing tennis at 38 like Venus, she was adamant it was not an option.
“Definitely no. It takes lots of willpower. It’s amazing what she does, how she still keeps going and is still motivated to play. Even today, I was playing against her and thinking, ‘I’m not sure I will be here playing at that age.’ But she’s a great player. She still can challenge everyone on tour but maybe not beat the best as often.”
Angelique Kerber’s early departure at the hands of the Russian teenager Anastasia Potapova was not the shock the scoreline suggests, as the fifth seed has been guarding an ankle injury which forced her to pull out of Rome and Madrid.
Potapova played well above her 81 world ranking on her Roland Garros debut to win 6-4, 6-2 in less than an hour and a quarter, and next meets Marketa Vondrousova, who took an hour and 21 minutes to beat China’s Wang Yafan 6-4, 6-3.
Kerber said later: “I tried my best. I was able to practise the last few days really well, but it was not a long claycourt preparation. In the end, I was happy to at least get on court. Of course I’m disappointed, but I tried everything the last two weeks to be here.”
She is no certainty to be at Wimbledon, either. “Right now I need to cool down a little bit and think what I will do the next days, next few weeks. I have still to continue the treatments with my foot and with my ankle. I have a little bit more time than expected.”
There was less drama elsewhere on that side of the draw. The No 2 seed Karolina Pliskova spent exactly an hour winning 6-2, 6-3 against Madison Brengle, and next plays the Slovakian qualifier Kristina Kucova, who caused a minor upset by beating the 2009 champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 6-2. The Russian is not back to her best after her own struggle with injuries.
Pliskova said she was aware several observers favour her to win the tournament. “I feel good,” she said, “so there is no reason why I should feel extra pressure or why I should be nervous. It’s only positive. I started well today. Of course, when you continue in the draw, there are tougher opponents later. I have a Slovak girl next, so it’s going to be tough. But I feel in a tournament that every time I play, match to match, I improve.”
Sloane Stephens had to knuckle down after a breezy start against Japan’s Misaki Doi, and was dragged into a tie-break before wrapping it up 6-3, 7-6 (4).