The noise in Court Philippe Chatrier sounded like thunder, but it was hard to tell whether it came from the thousands of celebrating French fans or the fall to earth of the greatest woman player of her era. Serena Williams' astonishing 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 defeat by France's Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open here last night was arguably the most extraordinary result in the women's game since Martina Hingis, the world No 1, lost to 16-year-old Jelena Dokic in the first round at Wimbledon 13 years ago.
Williams, who had never lost in the first round in her 46 previous Grand Slam tournaments, was the favourite to win here for the first time for 10 years, having arrived at Roland Garros unbeaten in her 17 matches on clay this year.
Meanwhile Razzano, the world No 111, had gone out of her home Grand Slam tournament in the first round in five of the last six years. She has won just two titles and had not won two main-draw matches in a row this year. Almost the only occasion the 29-year-old from Dijon has attracted major interest from the media was last year, when she won the hearts of the French public after playing here eight days after the death of her fiancé and coach from a brain tumour.
It was a remarkable match, in which the umpire, Eva Asderaki, played a significant role. Asderaki was the umpire who awarded a crucial point during last year's US Open final against Williams after ruling that the American's scream of "Come on!" during a rally had hindered her opponent, Sam Stosur. On that occasion Williams had berated Asderaki, telling the official: "I truly despise you... You're a hater and you're unattractive inside."
This time the umpire's first crucial intervention came in the second set tie-break. Williams had not played well but had won the first set and led 5-1 in the tie-break. At 5-3 Asderaki overruled a line call in favour of Razzano, from which point Williams' game went into meltdown. Winning six points in a row, Razzano clinched the tie-break and immediately took control of the final set by winning the first five games. Williams, moving uneasily, made a succession of errors, but the 30-year-old American never knows when she is beaten and fought back to 5-3.
With Razzano apparently unable to control her emotions, Asderaki, applying the same "hindrance" rule of which Williams had fallen foul in New York, twice awarded points to her opponent, to the Frenchwoman's evident horror.
The final game capped the lot. It lasted nearly 25 minutes and featured 13 deuces. Razzano, whose nerve seemed to desert her on every other point, wasted seven match points, blazing balls way long and hitting one woeful double-fault. However, after three hours and three minutes the Frenchwoman, defying the cramp which affected her in the closing stages, finally sealed victory when Williams hit a backhand just beyond the baseline. Even then the drama was not over as Asderaki jumped down from her chair to inspect the mark and ruled that the ball was indeed out.
"She's not a favourite amongst the tour," Williams said afterwards when asked about Asderaki. "I just really had a flashback there."
Williams admitted she had been nervous. "I kept going for my shots, which always works for me, but it didn't work out today," she said. "I made so many errors today, which isn't the game that I've been playing in the past."
Razzano described her emotions as "happiness, pure happiness". She added: "It's the most beautiful victory of my whole career, especially on the Philippe Chatrier court in front of the whole crowd. I'm not sure there is an appropriate word to describe this victory."
Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova, two of the other favourites to win here, started in convincing fashion. Sharapova beat Romania's Alexandra Cadantu 6-0, 6-0 in just 48 minutes, while Kvitova defeated Ashleigh Barty, the junior Wimbledon champion, 6-1, 6-2.
Rafael Nadal began his attempt to win the men's title for the seventh time in eight years with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Italy's Simone Bolelli. He made only 18 unforced errors to earn a place in the second round against Denis Istomin.