For a third seed at a Grand Slam event, Agnieszka Radwanska has barely – somewhat extraordinarily – been mentioned among the title contenders at Roland Garros in 2014.
While all the talk has centred around the past three French champions, the formidable trio of Serena Williams (2013), Maria Sharapova (2012) and Li Na (2011), the Pole has slipped under the radar in the run-up to Paris.
But after Sunday’s 6-3, 6-0 demolition of China’s Zhang Shuai on Philippe Chatrier Court in just 62 minutes, Radwanska has certainly helped her case to be included in discussions of favouritism. “I'm third seed here, so I can't really say (I’m an) outsider, but, you know, clay is not really my favourite surface. But, no, I'm trying,” she said. “Last year I did my first quarterfinal, so hopefully this year I can do even better.”
As she strolled onto court, she made another statement – this was one of fashion, thanks to her floral dress with blazing orange accents. And after the first game, it appeared that this, and her tennis, were to be elements brightening an otherwise grey, cool day at Roland Garros. Yet after Radwanska broke in the first game, the complexion of the match altered. Zhang came to life, thumping four clean winners in the second game to immediately break back.
For much of the rest of the set, the contrasts were obvious. Zhang stood up on the baseline and pounded powerful ground-strokes, connecting with some for winners, missing on others. Radwanska scampered about the court a few meters further back, occasionally struggling with her length but constructing points well enough and producing typical touches of class and brilliance that allowed her to stay with her pumped-up opponent. The only common thread linking the two women was their inability to hold serve.
Predictably, it was the world No.3 who rose to the occasion when it mattered. Facing two break points in the eighth game, she benefitted from a rash of Zhang errors to reach game point, and recorded the first service hold of the match with an ace down the T to lead 5-3. A few points later, she’d pocketed the opening set. “For sure, first round as well the first match is always tricky… I think the courts are not always dry, it's raining every day, so it makes the courts much slower,” she reflected.
“I don't know if there is really any explanation why there were eight breaks in a row, but I guess it happens sometimes. But I think when I just broke myself in the end of the first set I think I was more confident, and then I think I started to play much better.”
That first hold proved the turning point of the match; Zhang would not win another game. Radwanska’s performance in the second set showed why she had, prior to this match, been able to compile a sparkling 29-2 record in first round matches at Grand Slam tournaments.
She pulled all the tricks out of her bag, turning the contest, from her end of the court at least, into an exhibition of precision and polish. An ace and a forehand winner helped her hold for 1-0, while three straight passing-shot winners in the second game – the third set up by a sublime drop shot – saw her break for a 2-0 lead. Overhead, stop-volley and backhand winners in the next game made it 3-0. Just 17 minutes later, Radwanska sent an ace out wide to build a 5-0 lead. And she closed out the match with a flourish, producing off-forehand and volley winners on the final two points to progress to Round 2.
Although she said she had not looked at the draw and did not know her second-round opponent – that would be Karolina Pliskova or Mathilde Johansson – she was nonetheless pleased with her progress so far. "Of course I'm just very happy that I won this match in two sets and pretty quickly. Just one hour on court,” she noted. “Still fresh and ready to go.”