Tennis

Razzano overcomes penalties in upset

Richard Evans on Serena Williams' first-round exit at the French Open
Richard Evans on Serena Williams' first-round exit at the French Open
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

In one of the most dramatic and scarcely believable duels ever played out on the center court at Roland Garros, Serena Williams lost in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. In her 47th such event.

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

Williams, the No. 5 seed, was a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loser Tuesday to 29-year-old French player Virginie Razzano, who is ranked 111th in the world. The loss came after Serena led 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker.

The scoreboard revealed another stunning statistic about a half-hour before Razzano became a new national heroine — Serena was trailing 5-0 in the final set. The idea of this great champion suffering a third-set drubbing of that magnitude seemed unreal, and Serena at least saved herself that humiliation by staging a defiant, if somewhat mindless, comeback against an opponent who was visibly suffering from leg cramps.

And that was not all Razzano had to deal with. She was called for interference twice as a result of grunting, which seemed a little harsh considering the she noise she creates is not nearly as loud as Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka at the start of every point. Coincidentally, it was the same umpire in the chair, Eva Asderaki, who had been officiating when Serena was given a penalty for screaming after she hit a ball at the US Open last year.

Relentless in her determination to make the rule stick, no matter against whom or when, Asderaki called Razzano a third time right after she had served a double fault to make it 30-all at 5-3 in the third. That made it a point penalty, and Serena had the first of five break points in that last tumultuous game, which lasted 25 minutes.

But Serena had two major problems. The first was an opponent who simply refused to give up and continued to hit some fantastic winners in between awful errors on most of the seven match points she lost. The second was her own inexplicable decision to try to hit every serve as hard as she could. Serena has built a career on coming up with screaming winners on big points, but if ever there was an occasion to simply get the ball in play and grind, this was it.

So Razzano was let off time and again by returns from Serena that either flew yards out of bounds or found the net. Even though the stadium was only two-thirds full as 9 p.m. local time approached, the place was rocking with screams of “Allez, allez Virginie!” And if one needed to know about tension, you needed only to look at the expression on Razzano’s taught, drawn features as she tossed up the ball to serve. At the other end, Serena seemed, once again, close to tears.

The back story to this heroic effort from Razzano was as poignant as it could be. Last May, her fiance and coach, Stephane Vidal, died after a nine-year battle with brain cancer. Respecting his wish, Razzano played at Roland Garros but lost in the first round. How proud would he have been to see her return and score a victory of this historic magnitude?

“The angels were with me,” she said afterward. “I was cramping, but you have to focus and continue to play.”

That she did, with as much courage as one can ask of an athlete. Serena might have made far too many errors, but there is not the slightest doubt Razzano deserved to win this match. She had come up with a couple of stunning winners on the line when trailing in that tiebreaker, and aided by some Williams errors, Razzano ran off six straight points to take it 7-5.

Serena had not looked comfortable right from the start and dropped her opening service game before finding some semblance of rhythm in windy conditions as the match continued. But it was not the form of a player who had won her previous 17 matches on all forms of clay — green in Charleston, blue in Madrid and red in Rome.

Her appearance in the interview room was brief.

“I made too many errors, which hasn’t been the game I’ve been playing,” she muttered. “I was definitely nervous, which I think is healthy, but I have no excuses.”

She added that she hoped to get a win in the mixed doubles event, which she entered with Bob Bryan.

Sam Querrey began his match in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday against No. 8 seed Janko Tipsarevic in dreamland, playing, according to his opponent, “out of his mind.”

Tipsarevic said the Californian was playing “a little bit outside the situation,” a polite Serbian way of saying that Querrey was not paying much attention to the surface he was playing on and just going for it. “All credit to him,” said Tipsarevic, who has read too many dark Russian novels to be upset by such a thing. “He was hitting winners from everywhere. Everything was going in. I managed to stay positive, stay quiet, not really talk too much when somebody is killing me on court like he did in the first set.”

In other words, Tipsarevic was biding his time. And sure enough, the Santa Ana wind, when imported from California, doesn’t have enough strength to blow for long. Querrey started missing and Tipsarevic, a strong runner, began turning the screw. To his credit, Querrey kept fighting but a final score of 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-3 revealed the pattern of the match.

Unhappily, two other American men fared no better. James Blake, who is making one last effort to resurrect his ranking, slumped to a 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 defeat at the hands of veteran Russian Mikhail Youzhny, while Donald Young faded after a good first set against talented Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and lost 7-6 (3), 6-1, 6-1. “I haven’t won many matches this year. I do not have much confidence at the moment,” Young admitted. It showed.

Nor was Jamie Hampton able to build on the success of six of her American colleagues the previous day. Becoming the first of twelve American women to fail to progress to the second round, Hampton was forced to quit with a back injury when trailing 6-4, 4-3 to Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands.

Rafael Nadal returned to Philippe Chatrier and looked perfectly at home on Roland Garros’ center court — as he should. Going for his seventh French Open title, which would break Bjorn Borg’s record, Nadal outplayed Italian Simone Bolelli 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. On Suzanne Lenglen, No. 4 seed Andy Murray was similarly untroubled by Tatsuma Ito, defeating the Japanese player 6-1, 7-5, 6-0.

And no one had a more convincing win than Maria Sharapova, who must be delighted Serena Williams no longer is her prospective quarterfinal opponent. The second seed, who recently won the Italian Open, destroyed Alexandra Cadantu of Romania 6-0, 6-0.

Tagged: Serena Williams

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