Heavyweights dominate first-round foes

Christina McHale, America’s 18-year-old hope, was leading 5-0 in the third set against the experienced Italian Sara Errani in the first round of the French Open at Roland Garros. And she lost. No wonder the poor girl was in tears when talking to a small group of reporters after the match but she pulled herself together and admitted, "I panicked."

McHale said she was worried by a slight strain in her leg and tried to rush things. Errani knew better.

"I saw she was a little nervous in the tiebreak and even when I was so down in the third I just thought, wait, take your time," Errani said.

Therein lies the benefit of experience, an advantage which enabled Errani to escape with a 7-6, 2-6, 9-7 victory. Melanie Oudin might have felt like shedding a tear or two, as well, after a walloping on the Philippe Chatrier Court 6-2, 6-0 by the reigning champion Francesca Schiavone.

"Basically I pretty much got a clay-court lesson," Oudin admitted candidly. And that was basically true.

Otherwise, on another glorious day in Paris, the heavyweights in the men’s draw took to the courts and showed why they dominate the game. Novak Djokovic racked up his 40th straight victory with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 thrashing of Holland’s Thiemo de Bakker while Roger Federer did not allow Feliciano Lopez to get as close as he had done in Madrid three weeks ago and beat the Spanish left-hander 6-3, 6-4, 7-6.

And in the best match of the day, the recuperating Juan Martin del Potro came through a duel full of big-booming winners and deft volleying to beat the 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. Del Potro won largely because of 26 thunderous winners off his forehand, some of which were hit straight down the line as he stretched wide to his right.

But Karlovic was always competitive in this fascinating encounter because the giant Croat showed just how much he has improved over the years by volleying with superb touch behind his massive serve as he used the pace of these dry clay courts to his advantage. Karlovic had three break points at the start of the third set and the outcome might have been different had he grabbed any of them.

"You have to be patient," said the soft-spoken del Potro afterwards. "Any mistake can cost you but if you are concentrated, you may have opportunities and this is what happened today."

The upset of the day belonged to a French player ranked No. 140 in the world. The 31-year-old Stephane Robert battled back from two sets to love down to beat last year’s semifinalist Thomas Berdych 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 9-7. Like many players brought up on clay, Robert has an unorthodox style and once he found his touch, he started to wreak havoc with the Czech’s timing. Berdych plays in the Ivan Lendl mode, straight up and down, pounding balls with power and depth but if his timing is knocked out of sync his game can fall apart.

The more Robert came up with outrageous winners, the more bemused and frustrated Berdych became.

"I cannot imagine someone who can play tennis like this being out of the top 100, you know, having to play qualifications — but that’s sport."

Berdych was one of the players who were supposed to benefit from the change in ball from Dunlop to Babolat because he had played in the ATP event in Nice last week — the only tournament that had had a chance to use Babolat. Berdych reached the semifinals there but, in the end, it proved to be no advantage for the No. 6 seed.

Later on a beautiful evening there was more drama in the women’s singles when the American, Coco Vandeweghe was called for a double hit on set point in the first-set tiebreak against Russia’s Maria Kirilenko. Coco protested vehemently that she had not taken two swings at the ball but the umpire was convinced the ball had hit her racket twice and awarded the set to Kirilenko who then went on to win 7-6, 6-2.

Television replays showed the ball had somehow flown upwards off the strings and bounced back onto to them, creating a double hit. It was one of those freak happenings that you couldn’t repeat in a month of trying and Vandeweghe was obviously thrown by the incident. Turning away from the umpire in disgust, she chucked her racket along the sideline and was never really in the match again.

And there was a late win for world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki who wasted little time beating the veteran Japanese Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-0 ,6-2. It’s early, but Wozniacki is on a mission to claim her first ever Grand Slam title, thus justifying her top-ranked status, and this performance will have done her confidence no harm.