Women's qualifying: Kostyuk survives
The ‘Lioness’ roars again while Eugenie Bouchard bows out of women's qualifying at Roland-Garros with injury.
The “Lioness” gave out one long roar of delight and her adoring Parisian fan club responded in kind. Francesca Schiavone had won her first match of the entire year and it was no coincidence that it had once again materialised at her favourite Roland-Garros venue.
“It’s fantastic. Now I can go home, drink some wine - and I’m really very, very happy,” beamed Italy’s evergreen former champion as she contemplated a typically ferociously-earned 6-4 3-6 6-3 triumph over Canada’s Carol Zhao in the first round of qualifying.
In a contest held over from the previous night when the rains came at one-set apiece, the 37-year-old Schiavone admitted that, after a season in which she had lost all six of her matches, she had needed that heavenly break with Zhao in the ascendancy.
“I was very tired after the two sets last night,” she mused. “But today I came back and I said to myself ‘hey, we have to go again, you have to play good tennis and you know you can do it.’”
And she did. Still playing each shot, as she’s done this past two decades, as if it might be her very last, her spirit and sheer will seemed to carry her over the line on Court 6 over a doughty opponent 15 years her junior and 130 places ahead of her on the WTA computer.
Things have changed somewhat for “La Leonessa” since her Roland-Garros heyday in 2010 when she was a surprise victor and the following year when she reached the final. Yet her heart remains just as formidable.
“I feel very strange,” she smiled, pointing towards her old Philippe-Chatrier lair. “Everything’s different. I have to walk now, not take the car! It’s very different from 20 years ago but it’s okay. Life gives you so many things to learn and live - and this is another moment!”
And what a moment. For five months, after deciding to extend her career at the end of last year, she could have been forgiven for wondering about the wisdom of that decision as she lost match after match while struggling with injuries.
“I had problems with my ankle and my back and I haven’t been able to manage some situations that have been very difficult,” said Schiavone. “So you come back here and say ‘thank god, I’m here, I can play tennis’ and I understand there are many things that are much more important outside of tennis. So this means a lot.”
She sounded like someone who may be making her final appearance at Roland-Garros, but don’t forget this is the indefatigable Schiavone we are talking about.
“Can be,” she laughed when it was suggested it could be her last Roland-Garros. “But I don’t say that otherwise they give me a trophy or something special - and then I come back again.”
The day’s other star draw, Eugenie Bouchard, a semi-finalist here back in 2014, suffered a rather more miserable afternoon, being forced to retire from her first-round match with 13th qualifying seed Dalila Jakupovic after being whitewashed 6-0 in the opening set and trailing 2-1 in the second.
The Canadian, though erratic, had shown no obvious signs of an injury as the inspired Slovenian Jakupovic blitzed her in a 24-minute opening set, but she soon called for the trainer and ended up being treated off court before returning to offer her hand to her conqueror.
Bouchard, whose decline from her halcyon 2014 campaign has been one of the sport’s more dispiriting sights, again cut a forlorn figure, declining to answer questions about the injury as she returned to the locker room afterwards.
Yet it seems probable that she had suffered a recurrence of the abdominal injuries which have troubled her since her junior days. and flared up again a fortnight ago, forcing her to withdraw from an ITF event in Cagnes-sur-Mer. “I’m really sorry for her injury,” said Jakupovic. “It’s never nice to win like this.”
Bouchard’s fortunes have been waning but Canada may have another new rising star to savour in the shape of her 17-year-old compatriot Bianca Andreescu, who overpowered the world No.77 and top qualifying seed Vera Lapko, of Belarus, 6-4 7-5 in another first-round qualifying match.
Andreescu, who is of Romanian descent and says that Simona Halep is her idol, explained afterwards that she has set her ambitions as high as the world No.1.
“She’s so nice and works so hard, I really look up to her. My goal is to be the best I can be and if that means being the world number one like her, then so be it,” said Andreescu.
“I was so happy when Simona said nice things about me when I was playing in the Fed Cup in Romania. People say about me ‘oh, she’s just 17’ but for me, I don’t think age really matters. I think if you put in a lot of work and believe in yourself, a lot of good things will come to you.”
Elsewhere in qualifying, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who last year as a lucky loser into the main draw became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, began another potentially impressive campaign by defeating Sesil Karatantcheva - a quarterfinalist here at just 15 back in 2005 - 6-1 2-6 6-2.
The biggest home cheers, though, were reserved for 15-year-old local hero Diane Parry, who learned her game just across the road from Roland-Garros, first at Jean de La Fontaine School and now at the neighbouring French Federation National Training Centre.
The youngest player in the entire draw, Parry outlasted Croatian Jana Fett, the 13th seeded qualifier, 7-6(6) 1-6 7-5 after an absorbing two-and-a-half hour tussle on Court 18.