American women unlikely stars in Paris
Bethanie Mattek-Sands brought down the curtain on opening day at the French Open just before the sun started setting over Roland Garros and she was all smiles.
No. wonder because the No. 1 ranked American overcame an awful start against Arantxa Parra Santonja to beat the 92nd ranked Spaniard 2-6, 7-6, 6-3.
It was a victory born of guts and perseverance, sprinkled with a little bit of luck. Towards the end of the match, Parra Santonja slipped and went sprawling on the red clay. Then she hit a good-looking forehand volley right on the top of the net cord and watched it bounce back at her. Mattek-Sands didn't care. She was hell-bent on victory and kept the crowd entertained out on Court 7, not simply because she cuts an original figure in her long black socks, yellow top and black sunblock under both eyes, but because she was finally able to show them that she could play.
Forehands that had been finding the net started to go in and her serve percentage improved. As the Spaniard started to tire, the American was still scampering all over court and, after she had grabbed the second set on the breaker 7-3, she suddenly became the favorite to win a match she had seemed destined to lose. In the end she had as much difficulty getting through the throng of autograph hunters at courtside as she had winning the last two games.
It got better for American women's tennis when Varvara Lepchenko scored a fine 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 victory over the experienced No. 18 seed from Italy, Flavia Pennetta. After a lapse in concentration allowed Pennetta into the match, Lepchenko, who has been living in the United States since 2000 and has just become a citizen, started to force the errors again and ended up with the most convincing victory of her career at this level.
The tireless American Robert Kendrick was not so fortunate, going down 6-1, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to the No. 30 seed from Spain, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Kendrick tried to bomb down some serves and his aggression paid off for a while but he was up against a classic clay-courter and the result was inevitable.
The main topic of the day was balls. Babolat balls, to be precise, have replaced the traditional Dunlops. Inevitably when you spring a technical surprise on tennis players everyone has a slightly different take on the subject. But the majority view appeared to be that they were lighter; flew through the air faster when new but fluffed up quickly.
Robin Soderling, a shocking winner over Rafael Nadal here two years ago, is thought to be one of the players who will benefit from the change but big servers were also felt to have been given a significant advantage. Well, that idea didn't seem to stand up when the 6-foot-6 Marin Cilic who serves out of the proverbial tree, crashed out 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 to Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo who must have one of the worst Grand Slam records of any long serving player on the tour.
The Spaniard, currently ranked 99 on the ATP computer, had only ever got past the first round in a Grand Slam once. That was here in 2006 when he reached the fourth round.
So when he served out for victory at the second attempt against the 19th seeded Croat, it was only his fourth Slam singles win at the age of 31 after a decade on the tour. The Spaniard played well but Cilic was terrible. He appears to have lost all confidence and handed his opponent the benefit of more than 60 unforced errors, most on the forehand which is supposed to be his big weapon. At no stage did he look like the man who had reached the semi-final of the Australian Open last year and the way in which he threw away two breaks in the first set was pitiful. Only when he broke back from 2-5 in the third set did he seem to free himself of his internal shackles and loosen up enough to score with that potentially deadly forehand.
By then it was too late. Ramirez Hidalgo took a deep breath and managed to serve out for a rare success at this level.
No. 7 seed David Ferrer came through 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 against the Finish veteran Jarkko Nieminen and offered his opinion on the balls. "They are very fast balls," he said. "They have been designed for fast-court players with very good serve."
As Ferrer is not a fast-court player, despite some success in Miami, and does not have a big serve, one detected a certain resignation in his voice. Searching for a palliative, he added, "But it is still tennis."
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who headlined a program devoid of most of the top seeds, kept the crowd on Phillipe Chatrier Center Court happy by beating the Czech, Jan Hajek, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. But the big Frenchman did not exactly agree with Ferrer about the balls. "I wouldn't say they are faster," he said. "Maybe the way they bounce is not as good as before. If it's an easy ball, they don't bounce that high. They bounce less." As Tsonga does quite a bit of bouncing himself maybe he looks at a bouncing ball from a different viewpoint.
Japan's Kei Nishikori, who now has Brad Gilbert in his coaching camp, was just happy to be hitting balls after his kidney stone problem which sent him scurrying back to Tokyo for treatment after being taken ill in Madrid two weeks ago. All that flying and the pills he has been taking didn't seem to affect his tennis and he beat Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
"I was hurt in my stomach," he said. "Close, you know, to not playing here. But started feeling better and decided to come and practice a couple of days ago." Nishikori has a lot of talent and, obviously, a lot determination.