Keothavong refuses to be down after going out early in Paris again
Monday 24 May 2010
You can usually rely on the French Open to start under grey skies, with the crowd using rain breaks to raid the merchandise counters in search of warm clothing, but the Paris public cooked like
côtes d'agneau under a brasserie grill here yesterday.
With the sun blazing down from a cloudless sky, the locals also had plenty of other reasons to feel happy with their lot. Julien Benneteau became the first man to progress at the expense of a seed when Ernests Gulbis retired with an injury, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Daniel Brands in a five-set thriller, and Aravane Rezai, who is set to become the new darling of the Roland Garros crowd, followed up her victory over Venus Williams in the final in Madrid the previous weekend with a crushing victory over Canada's Heidi El Tabakh.
If the opening day's programme was short on quality – Williams, a straight-sets winner over Patty Schnyder, was the only major name in action – it did not appear to detract from the crowd's enjoyment. The French Tennis Federation is considering moving to a new home because of problems expanding the current site (there is even talk of moving in next to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland Paris), but on glorious days like this you wonder why anyone would contemplate a move away from Roland Garros.
Court Philippe-Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen, the main show courts here, are both fine stadiums, but the third court is the favourite of many aficionados. Court 1, which is circular in shape, is a wonderfully atmospheric arena, with every seat close to the action. It is also known as the bullring.
Anne Keothavong played there yesterday, but unfortunately for the former British No 1 it was her opponent, Flavia Pennetta, who was wearing the matador's cape. The Italian, ranked 139 places higher at No 15 in the world, won 6-2, 6-2, though she did not have everything her own way.
There were times when Keothavong struck the ball with real authority, but 28-year-old Pennetta, an accomplished clay-courter who has played her best tennis in the last two years, usually had the edge. The Italian did not look back after breaking serve in the opening game. She won four of her five break points and never looked in trouble on her own serve.
Although Keothavong had plenty of support, with a phalanx of Lawn Tennis Association coaches and officials in the crowd, the 20 flags flying around the perimeter of the arena were probably a better indication of the likelihood of British success. There was not a Union flag among them, a sign, perhaps, of the perennial struggle of cross-Channel competitors to make an impact at this tournament.
Keothavong knew all about those struggles 12 months ago, when she suffered a humiliating 6-0, 6-0 defeat in the first round at the hands of Dinara Safina. Given that experience – she admitted the result haunted her through a difficult summer – Keothavong said she had "a little chuckle to myself" when she won her first game yesterday.
"Going out in the first round here on Sunday isn't that much fun, but I don't think it was a particularly bad match," she added. "It was a tough draw against Flavia. She's a tough opponent and she's done well here in the past. I think she had to play well against me to win the way she did today."
Although the match, at 64 minutes, was only three minutes longer than her Safina nightmare, Keothavong was not downhearted given her recent experiences. Having reached a career-high No 48 in the world rankings last February, she tore both the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in her left knee in July, which kept her out of the game for more than six months.
It was a cruel blow, especially as she had suffered a similar injury to her right knee five years earlier, but she worked hard to come back and is rightly proud of the fact she has earned direct entry to this tournament and Wimbledon.
Gulbis, who beat Roger Federer in Rome recently and was a potential quarter-final opponent for the world No 1, was seen by many as a dark horse here, but his challenge ended in pain against Benneteau. The world No 23 was already a set and 2-1 down when he damaged a hamstring. He went off for treatment and carried on until retiring when he trailed 6-4, 6-2, 1-0.
"When I returned a serve I stretched my hamstring and I heard two cracks," Gulbis said afterwards. "I don't know what it is. I'm going to get an MRI in hospital and check it. I hope it's nothing serious."
Gulbis, who is scheduled to play at the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club next month, added: "I will try not to be pessimistic for the grass-court season. Obviously I love grass. I love the tournaments there."
Robin Soderling, who beat Rafael Nadal here last year before losing to Federer in the final, swept aside Laurent Recouderc, a French wild card, for the loss of only five games, but Tsonga, the biggest local hope, had much more trouble against Brands, the world No 89. Tsonga eventually won 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 in the final match of the day on Court Philippe Chatrier. At least it was a result to send the French home happy into the evening sunshine.
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