Fri, 23 Oct 2020

US Open winner Dominic Thiem navigated a testing first-round French Open tie against former major champion Marin Cilic on Monday, with Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams set to begin their assault on Grand Slam records.

Thiem, the runner-up to Nadal in Paris the past two years, defeated 2014 US Open champion Cilic 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in their second encounter at a major this month.

Having captured his maiden Slam in New York, Thiem is trying to become the only man in the Open era to win his first two majors at successive tournaments.

A steady display from Thiem saw the Austrian break Cilic six times under the roof of Court Philippe Chatrier on another gloomy day at Roland Garros, pushed back from its customary May-June slot due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I really love this tournament, it's by far my best Grand Slam tournament so far," said Thiem, who plays American qualifier Jack Sock in the second round.

"I'm really happy with my first round. The transition to the cold conditions and clay worked really well."

He added: "I'm from Austria so I know how it is to play in these cold conditions. I love it when it's not too fast. I felt well from the first moment I came here."

Thiem's tone contrasted starkly with that of Nadal, who described the tournament as his "most difficult ever Roland Garros".

The Spaniard, on a mission to match Roger Federer's record of 20 major titles, arrives short of preparation and unhappy with the French Open's choice of new balls.

"The conditions here are probably the most difficult conditions for me ever at Roland Garros for so many different facts," said Nadal, who won the first of his 12 French Open titles in 2005.

"The ball is completely different. It is super slow, heavy. It's also very cold, slow conditions."

Nadal has been beaten just twice in 95 matches at the tournament but now must adjust to the unusual autumnal chill in Paris.

The competition began Sunday amid steady drizzle in temperatures struggling to reach 10 degrees (50F), conditions branded "ridiculous" by US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka.

Rain holds up play again

Play on Monday was initially delayed by more persistent rain. Twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova defeated Oceane Dodin 6-3, 7-5 in the only match to start on time under the new roof on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Dutch fifth seed Kiki Bertens later recovered from a poor start to overhaul 112th-ranked Ukrainian Katarina Zavatska 2-6, 6-2, 6-0.

The heavier atmosphere could negate some of Nadal's lethal topspin as he heads into the event without a clay title under his belt for the first time.

The second seed is not pleased the French Open has switched to a new ball supplier and even believes it could pose physical problems for the players.

"I really believe that the organisation needs to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders," said Nadal.

However a first-time meeting with Egor Gerasimov, the world number 83 from Belarus, is unlikely to trouble him.

In the women's draw, Williams launches another attempt to clinch an elusive 24th Grand Slam title on her least successful surface.

She has not gone beyond the last 16 in Paris since her defeat to Garbine Muguruza in the 2016 final.

The former world number one skipped Rome after sustaining an Achilles injury in her US Open semi-final loss but is confident of making a challenge for a fourth Roland Garros crown.

"I wouldn't be playing if I didn't think I could perform," said Williams, who turned 39 on Saturday.

"I'm not at 100% physically. But I don't know any athlete that ever plays physically when they're feeling perfect. That's just something I think as athletes we have to play with."

Williams takes on American Kristie Ahn in a repeat of their US Open first-round tie, and is playing at Roland Garros for the 18th time, having made her debut in 1998.

Her last major came at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. Since giving birth to baby Olympia, she has reached four finals in nine attempts without being able to land an elusive 24th Slam to equal Margaret Court.

Overall prize money at this year's event is down 11 percent at €14 491 000, but players beaten in the first round will receive €60 000 - a 30 percent increase compared to 2019.

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