French connection for foreign players
A magnificent Williams-Svitolina clash headlines the first day on the gorgeous new Court Simonne-Mathieu.
The competitive unveiling of Court Simonne-Mathieu at Roland-Garros demanded a match worthy of this wonderful new oasis of an arena and has been granted one in the shape of a potentially epic first-rounder between WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina and the great Venus Williams.
When Svitolina learned that she had drawn the seven-times Grand Slam champion just a week after being matched with Victoria Azarenka in the opening round of the Italian Open, she was moved to lament in her BBC column: “I don't know why I got this punishment!”
For even if Venus Ebony Starr is, inevitably, not quite the force of old as she approaches her 39th birthday and has slipped outside the top 50 for the first time in six years, there’s no doubt that she still comes fortified by her reputation as one of tennis’s most indefatigable warriors.
“A great champion, a legend of our sport… a role model for many athletes and girls,” enthuses Svitolina. Oh, and a potential nightmare should you meet her in the first round of a Grand Slam, she might have added.
For, yes, Venus has lost 10 times in the first round of a slam but then she has won an astonishing 72! The first of those came here at Roland-Garros back in 1997 when she was a wide-eyed 16-year-old whose overpowering of Naoko Sawamatsu opened the world’s eyes to her extraordinary talent.
Practice with the Queen today pic.twitter.com/40D75fssUK— Genie Bouchard (@geniebouchard) May 24, 2019
Twenty-two years later, she is still amazing us, her longevity one of the wonders of modern sport as she’s battled through the debilitating illness, Sjogren’s Syndrome, which would have destroyed weaker athletes, to keep contending at the highest level.
No wonder Svitolina admires her staying power. This 24-year-old talent who has promised so much, rising to No.3 in the world only 19 months ago, has still achieved so frustratingly little in Grand Slams, never yet getting beyond a quarter-final in 26 attempts.
Unfortunately, a recent knee problem has stopped her winning a single match on clay so far this season and there were moments when she wondered if she might not be able to play in her favourite Slam here.
“You have to be ready mentally and physically when you're playing one of the world's greats,” she acknowledges, even if Williams herself also appears to have been groping around for fitness and form of late.
So we could be looking at a couple of wounded warriors doing battle amid the greenery - and they’re going to need some help from the new, doubtless noisy brigade on the sunken Court Simonne-Mathieu.
The ever-popular Venus would normally be accorded the lion’s share of support for a match like this but Svitolina’s boyfriend just happens to be a fellow who is enormously beloved in these parts, one Gael Monfils.
“I'll have to see if I get more support because of him,” mused Svitolina, before conceding: “Although I know I won't get as much support as he does, obviously.”
As for the ageless Venus, there’s always the fear these days when she gets defeated that it might just be the last time we see her at that particular tournament.
But then you remember just how amazing she remains. “In life, there is no such thing as impossible. It's always possible,” as she said at a recent Wimbledon.
“Pretty much our job is to make the impossible happen every day. It's like magic, you know.”
And it’s just magic to have her back at Roland-Garros.
Lorenzo Sonego v Roger Federer
At 37, the 20-time Grand Slam winner returns to the Paris clay for the first time since his 2015 quarter-final defeat by eventual champion Stan Wawrinka. It was only this month that Federer played on red dirt anywhere at all since Rome 2016.
Ten years after his solitary triumph here, his opening test this time will be against the world No.73, who lists the Swiss as one of his idols. Clay is Sonego’s favourite surface, and he came through qualifying to reach the quarters in both Marrakech and Monte Carlo. That bounced him well inside the top 100 for the first time and earned him a place by right in the main draw here – another career first. His Court Philippe-Chatrier debut appearance will certainly be memorable.
Madison Brengle v Karolina Pliskova
Still searching for her maiden Grand Slam win, Czech Republic's Pliskova is ranked among the favourites for Roland-Garros 2019 having won the most important clay title of her career to date, in Rome. Yet did that win flatter to deceive? Pliskova lifted the trophy without facing an opponent ranked higher than 37. Nonetheless, Brengle the world No.97, will be hard-pressed to stop Pliskova stretching her current winning streak on the red dirt to six matches. The American has lost all three of their previous encounters, although she took the first set in their meeting at the Australian Open this year.
Marco Cecchinato v Nicolas Mahut
Twelve months ago the Italian Marco Cecchinato arrived at Roland-Garros ranked No.72, having never won a single main draw Grand Slam match, and departed just one step from the final – the first Italian man to reach the last-four of a Grand Slam in 40 years. On the way, Cecchinato dispatched David Goffin and Pablo Carreno Busta; and in the last eight, he defeated an utterly bewildered Novak Djokovic in four sets, clinching an epic 13-11 tiebreak for victory.
Alas, his Grand Slam form returned to usual afterwards, as he exited Wimbledon, the US Open and Australia at the first hurdle. In the first round at Roland-Garros 2019, he takes on wildcard Nicolas Mahut, who will not only have the Court Simonne-Mathieu crowd behind him but who inflicted one of Cecchinato’s previous Grand Slam first-round defeats, in Melbourne three years ago.