Men's qualifying: top seed Daniel begins strongly

Thanasi Kokkinakis and Felix Auger-Aliassime join No.1 seed in second round of qualifying draw.

Taro Daniel in action during his first-round qualifying victory at Roland Garros. © Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

To crash out in the opening round of a Challenger event was the ultimate reality check for Taro Daniel only weeks after the euphoria of toppling Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells.

Departing the green clay courts of Sarasota, Florida without a match win in singles or doubles, the 25-year-old boarded a flight to Estoril ready to contest qualifying before a last-minute change of plans proved a masterstroke.

Daniel – who opened his Roland-Garros qualifying campaign on Monday with a win over Victor Estrella Burgos – decided to play the Istanbul main draw where he went on to land his maiden ATP tour title and a career-high ranking on the cusp of the Top 80.

“The Istanbul win is more like, OK my level is finally starting to come. With [beating] Novak, it’s more of a future potential,” Daniel said. “Confidence-wise, it was a very different feeling. The Novak win was a more beautiful, flashy experience. Istanbul was more complete.”

This is a player who epitomises the experience of riding the ebbs and flows of life on tour.

While his new ranking would typically have assured a main-draw start at Roland-Garros, it came after the cut-off date and meant he would commence his Paris campaign a week earlier as the top seed in qualifying.

The 25-year-old was tested on Monday before running away with a 6-4 4-6 6-0 victory over Dominican veteran Estrella Burgos to set a second-round date with Austrian Dennis Novak.

He became the first player to win a match on Roland Garros’s new Court 18, the sunken, intimate arena skirted by timber bench seats at the far reaches of the grounds.

“I think it was a really good match. The first two sets were really brutal, physically. In the third, I think he maybe tired and rushed a little bit and I was able to get away with it pretty quickly and I served a lot better,” Daniel said.

“It’s a great court. I wasn’t expecting that many people turning up there at 10 o’clock, but today’s a holiday here which helps, I guess.”

Young guns Kokkinakis, Auger-Aliassime advance

After vastly mixed fortunes in 2018, Thanasi Kokkinakis is another player not getting too far ahead of himself after a come-from-behind 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over French 18-year-old Jaimee Floyd Angele in the opening round.

The Australian – who next meets Estonian No.24 seed Jurgen Zopp – has already lost large swathes of his young career to injuries and after the elation of upsetting World No.1 and defending champion Roger Federer in the Miami second round in March, the 22-year-old’s misfortunes returned in Monte Carlo.

It was there, as a wildcard, he tripped over courtside signage during his loss to Karen Khachanov, a stumble which saw him sustain a hairline fracture of his kneecap and forced his withdrawal from Istanbul qualifying.

“I haven’t played in a while, since I fell. I didn’t know how my knee was going to pull up after Monte Carlo. I wasn’t thinking of playing a couple of days ago so luckily I got through,” Kokkinakis said.

“It was tricky. I was really flat to start with. I found a way even though I didn’t play my best tennis so I’ll take it.”

Kokkinakis’s upset of Federer in Miami validated his persistence and potential.

“I’ve seen these guys for so long. I’ve known in practice I can play at a high level but I haven’t been able to be on the court enough to be healthy,” he said.

“Even last year was limited practice. I started to have some good results without really playing any tournaments so I think no one’s really doubting my level but I’ve just got to try and stay on the court and play some matches.”

The youngest player in men’s qualifying action, Felix Auger-Aliassime, made a winning start in his bid to be part of a Grand Slam main draw for the first time with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over 21-year-old South African Lloyd Harris.

The 17-year-old – a runner-up in the 2016 Roland Garros boys’ singles final – notched his first tour-level main draw match win in Indian Wells over Canadian countryman Vasek Pospisil.

He arrived for his Roland-Garros qualifying debut off a pair of Challenger-level quarter-finals on clay and will earn a shot at revenge against one of his conquerors, Jaume Munar, in the next round.

“Sometimes you expect to be nervous, to be tight, to not play your best tennis but I think from the first game I was serving well so that helps a lot because against good players, to help out physically, it’s always good to serve well,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“At the start of the year I played well at Indian Wells, now I’m playing good on clay. I won two [Challenger] titles on clay last year so I really think I can play well on any surface.”

Others posting first-round qualifying wins included 19-year-old Norwegian Casper Ruud over fifth seed Thiago Monteiro, No.2 seed Ilya Ivashka over Joao Domingues and 18-year-old Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic against Attila Balazs.