What we learned from week 1 in Paris

 - Dan Imhoff

Prolific Slam champions shine as form challengers depart and Italian teens press on

Paula Badosa, Roland-Garros 2021 third round©️ Philippe Montigny/FFT

It's been an eventful first week at Roland-Garros 2021, with fans returning to the stands, night sessions debuting at the tournament, stars shining and others suffering unexpected defeats.

Here's a look at some of the highs and lows of the first three rounds in Paris.

Match of the week

Spain’s Paula Badosa turned heads with a run to the fourth round at Roland-Garros last year but it was not until she hit the clay again in 2021 that pundits really began to take notice as she notched wins over the likes of world No.1 Ashleigh Barty, reached a semi-final in Madrid and bagged a first title in Belgrade.

The 33rd seed’s path to the second week had parted nicely but she looked down and out when Romanian Ana Bogdan held a match point at 6-2 6-5 in the third round. Badosa rallied to steal the set and even trailed 4-2 in the decider before bringing it home 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in two hours and 51 minutes. She will face 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova for a place in her first Grand Slam quarter-final.

“I was quite nervous because she was playing very, very good and I wasn't seeing the moment like to come back,” Badosa said. “When the opponent plays like that the only option you have is keep fighting. That's a little bit of what I did.

“I tried to keep calm in the important moments. I had match ball [against me] in second set. And I stayed very focused, very calm and just believed until the last moment.”

Big seeds tumble

Only 12 months ago, wiry Russian Andrey Rublev showed nerves of steel to rebound from two sets down in his Roland-Garros opener against Sam Querrey. In 2021, he would have to do the same if he was to move past German world No.42 Jan-Lennard Struff.

A maiden Masters 1000 final had come on the clay only a month prior, where he derailed 11-time champion Rafael Nadal en route. Hopes were high the No.7 seed could nudge beyond the quarter-final for the first time at a major this fortnight, but it was not to be as Struff steadied to close it out, 6-3, 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 6-4.

“I was feeling fine, I was practising well, I don't know. I don't know yet [what is next]. Now even myself, I don't know what to do now,” a dejected Rublev said.

Like Rublev, more had been expected on the Grand Slam stage of explosive Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, following a string of standout tour results. Unlike her fellow 23-year-old, however, she has yet to reach a major quarter-final.

That was tipped to change in Paris where Sabalenka entered as the No.3 seed with an 11-2 record on the terre battue in 2021.

She had ended Barty’s 16-match winning streak on the red clay to win her first Masters 1000 in Madrid but put in an erratic showing as she fell to 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 in the third round.

Twice a finalist at Roland-Garros, fourth seed Dominic Thiem had long been earmarked as the man most likely to reign in Paris outside the 'Big Three'. After his Grand Slam hoodoo lifted at Flushing Meadows in 2020, however, the Austrian has struggled to sustain his motivation and returned to the clay low on confidence in 2021. That self-belief suffered a further knock when 61 unforced errors helped seal his fate, a 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 opening-round defeat to Spanish veteran Pablo Andjuar.

Heartache strikes

Top seed Barty had claimed wins over her form rivals – Iga Swiatek and Sabalenka – and was the player to beat from the 2021 clay-court season with a title in Stuttgart and runner-up showing in Madrid.

The Australian’s chances of claiming a second Roland-Garros title, however, were struck a cruel and untimely blow when a left hip injury emerged during a weekend training session. The 25-year-old toughed out her opening round against Bernarda Pera but it was clear the writing was on the wall. Barty retired after dropping the opening set of her third-round match against Poland’s Magda Linette.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s disappointing to end like this. I’ve had my fair share of tears this week. It’s all good. Everything happens for a reason. There will be a silver lining in this eventually. Once I find out what that is, it’ll make me feel a little bit better.”

Grigor Dimitrov snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a harrowing opening-round match against Marcos Giron. The Bulgarian 16th seed led the American 6-2, 6-4, 5-1 and held three match points only to suffer a back injury at the worst possible moment. The triple Grand Slam semi-finalist proceeded to surrender the next nine games before pulling the plug in too much pain at 0-3 down in the fourth.

“Disappointment, that's all. Nothing else right now. It's sport, it happens,” Dimitrov said. "I hope we can find what the problem is because right now it's not good. When I can't use almost any of my weapons regardless of who I play against, I have no choice.”

Petra Kvitova was also struck by a bout of bad luck when she injured her ankle while fulfilling her press commitments after her opening-round victory over Greet Minnen. She had to pull out of the tournament ahead of her second round, gifting Elena Vesnina a walkover in the last 32.

"I will stay strong and do my best to recover in time for the grass-court season," she tweeted.

Grigor Dimitrov, Roland-Garros 2021 first round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Back from the brink

His maiden run to a fourth round at a major came at Roland-Garros last year. Now rising Italian Jannik Sinner has ticked off another feat in Paris – his first five-set victory.

Showing composure beyond his 19 years, the 18th seed saved a match point at 4-5 in the fourth set to deny French hope Pierre Hugues-Herbert in three hours and 33 minutes.

"When I saw the draw and his name, I knew it would be tough," said Sinner, one of seven Italians to reach the second round. “It's a crazy sport and today I am happy it went my way.”

Last year’s semi-finalist Kvitova knew to steer clear of Belgian qualifier Greet Minnen’s lethal forehand, having claimed both of their previous two meetings, including one in the first round of this year’s Australian Open.

But the Czech was having enough trouble steering out of her own errant ways in the opening round in Paris. Kvitova was staring down match point on serve at 5-6 in the second set, before storming home 6-7(3), 7-6(5), 6-1.

“I didn’t really feel myself that well. I was pretty tight and it was really tough,” Kvitova said. “I mean, I was fighting not only with her but with myself as well. I’m glad that, in the end, I beat myself as well and beat her, so that counts.”

After a win over world No.2 Daniil Medvedev in Madrid leading in, and a fifth title on clay this year on home soil, Chilean Cristian Garin had high hopes of reaching the second week of a major for the first time at Roland-Garros.

Following Dimitrov’s first-round retirement the draw had opened up for the 22nd seed but his rematch with Medvedev in the fourth round might not have eventuated had American qualifier Mackenzie McDonald converted one of two match points in the second round. Garin lived to fight another day 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-3, 8-6.

Federer shows promise in return

The four biggest stars with 81 majors between them sounded their intentions clearly in week one.

Men’s favourites Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal cruised into the fourth round while Serena Williams’ pursuit of a record 24th Grand Slam title gathered steam as she cantered into the fourth round, despite having fallen in two of her three clay-court matches leading in.

Her fellow 39-year-old, Roger Federer – on the comeback following two knee surgeries and with only three matches in 16 months – was quick to hose down title talk. But the manner in which the Swiss glided through his opening round tests elicited plenty of positives.

He had a tough time in the third round against German lefty Dominik Koepfer in a night-session showdown that lasted three hours and 35 minutes and ended 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 7-5 in Federer's favour just before 1:00am on Sunday morning.

It remains to be seen how the Swiss will be affected by that tricky late-night encounter.

“For me, my knee, the good thing is that I got a lot of information out of a match like this,” Federer said after beating Marin Cilic in round two. “Whatever the outcome is, I know it was definitely the right choice to come here to Paris, which I'm very happy about.”

Roger Federer, Roland-Garros 2021 second round© Julien Crosnier / FFT

Comeback queen bids farewell

Little more than a month since announcing she was cancer-free, Carla Suarez Navarro was back on court at Roland-Garros for her swansong appearance. With minimal expectations, the 32-year-old – twice a quarter-finalist in Paris – served for victory against 2019 runner-up Sloane Stephens in the first round only to come up short 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4.

“It was a long time, really tough moments, tough months,” former world No.6 Suarez Navarro said. “But every time I had on my mind that I wanted to be here, I wanted to come back.

“Roland-Garros is one of my favourite tournaments. Obviously I need more time. Of course I felt tired at the end, I knew that if don’t close the match in two sets, it will be so difficult. But I’m really proud of myself and really happy to have the chance to play here one last time.”

The Spaniard plans to retire following the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Biggest breakthroughs

Spare a thought for 13th seed David Goffin. For the second year running the Belgian drew a hyped Italian teenager and both times fell victim. Last year it was Sinner, who subsequently reached his maiden quarter-final at a major.

Not to be outdone, fellow 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti mirrored Sinner’s exploits in his Grand Slam debut this week. Wins over Yoshihito Nishioka and his first five-set victory over compatriot and 2018 semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato sealed his last-16 berth.

"I'm just living what he was living like last year, so we are growing up together. We are playing every week now together,” Musetti said of Sinner. “I finally enter into the tour. That was my goal.”

With Musetti and Sinner advancing, it marked the first time two teenagers had reached the men's fourth round in Paris since 2006, when 19-year-olds Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils did so.

Slovenian Tamara Zidansek will be thankful her aversion to cold weather turned her off a promising start as a snowboarder.

The 23-year-old, who elected to switch her focus to tennis as a child, had never been beyond the second round at a major in eight prior attempts until Roland-Garros this year.

After pulling off her first top-10 victory over No.7 seed Bianca Andreescu 7-6(1), 6-7(2), 9-7 in three hours and 20 minutes in the opening round, she backed it up, downing Madison Brengle and Katerina Siniakova to set a fourth-round meeting with Sorana Cirstea.

Quote of the week

“The beliefs, they can change. I don't know. When I was young I never ate fish, like I hated it. Now I love tuna, but raw tuna. Talking about things I hate but I'm good at, probably there is none. I like the things I'm good at. So, yeah, this year I'm enjoying myself in Roland-Garros. I don't hide it, I'm really enjoying.”

– Daniil Medvedev discovers a little more love in his love-hate relationship with the clay following a first fourth-round appearance in Paris.