PARIS — No matter how much success they’ve had over the years, and to this day, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal both profess to deal with doubts.
Both began this French Open with straight-set victories against overmatched foes in Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday.
And both have something significant at stake over the coming two weeks: a chance to equal a record for Grand Slam singles titles. Williams already has 23, the most by anyone in the professional era; one more will allow her to tie Margaret Court’s all-era mark.
Nadal began his attempt to pull even with rival Roger Federer for the most by a man, 20, by beating Egor Gerasimov of Belarus 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
His 2020 debut at a place he’s won 12 trophies did not change Nadal’s view of things at this pandemic-postponed event: It’s colder than usual, the balls are heavier than usual, he’s had less preparation than usual.
“The conditions are completely different,” he said, “than any other Roland Garros that we played.”
Still, Gerasimov would have been forgiven for choosing the same metaphor to describe Nadal that Williams’ opponent came up with: “a runaway train.”
After she played OK in the opening set, then was terrific in the second, of a 7-6 (2), 6-0 win over 102nd-ranked American Kristie Ahn, Williams—so used to being questioned about Court—was asked on this day about Nadal and Federer.
“I don’t get involved in the ‘greatest’ talk. You know, the greatest for me is, and will always be, Jesus, so I’m going to leave it at that,” Williams began.
And then she didn’t leave it at that.
“Rafa, I’m obviously a huge fan of his. I always have been. But it’s like you can’t compare two people that are equally great. Roger, I mean, he’s Roger Federer. I think that says enough,” Williams continued. “So, you know, it’s like I don’t understand why people want to pit, ‘Who’s this? Who’s that?’ They both have spectacular careers that 99% of people can only dream of and... every single credit and every single thing that they get, they absolutely deserve it. I’m a big fan of both, to be honest.”
And rightly so. Novak Djokovic’s name belongs in the conversation, too, of course.
He’ll be aiming for his 18th major championship at this French Open, which he finally gets underway Tuesday with his first Grand Slam match since being disqualified at the U.S. Open.
It was in New York less than a month ago that Ahn faced Williams in the first round—and lost.
So imagine this (bad) luck of the draw: Ahn is now the only player to face Williams in the first round at two consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Of note: Williams is 75-1 in openers at majors.
“I mean, I laughed,” Ahn said. “I mean, what are the odds?”
Yet she was up to the task for most of a 72-minute, 102-point initial set Monday, twice leading it by a break.
What changed for Williams?
“I just need to play with more confidence,” she explained, “like I’m Serena.”
Well, yes, she was more herself for the latter half of the contest, which by the end really wasn’t much of a contest.
And this is how Ahn described the sensation of being across the net from that version of Williams, the one where she is at her very best.
“It feels like you’re trying to push a runaway train in the opposite direction,” Ahn said. “It’s very difficult to try and stop, to stop her momentum when she’s going, when she’s feeling it.”
The man Nadal beat in the last two finals, Dominic Thiem, won his first match since winning the U.S. Open, advancing to the second round with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. This, too, was a recent rematch from New York.
Thiem will next face American qualifier Jack Sock, who beat Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 and was one of at least six men from the U.S. to get to the second round; only one did a year ago in Paris.
Among the key results on Day 2 of a chilly, pandemic-postponed French Open were losses by 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, who was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Polish teenager Iga Swiatek; three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber; 2017 U.S. Open finalist and 2018 French Open semifinalist Madison Keys; and men’s seeds No. 8 Gael Monfils, No. 14 Fabio Fognini and No. 19 Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Williams now gets another rematch, facing Tsvetana Pironkova, the player the 39-year-old American beat in the quarterfinals in New York earlier this month.
Williams keeps coming close to Court: Williams has made it to the final at four of her past eight major tournaments, losing each time. At the U.S. Open, after edging Pironkova, she exited in the semifinals against Victoria Azarenka, slowed a bit down the stretch after hurting her left Achilles tendon.
Williams wore a strip of black athletic tape on the lower portion of that leg Monday. Asked what she’s done to take care of herself, she replied: “A ton of prayer.”