They always like to do things differently in these parts, but this was a strange way to start a Grand Slam tournament. The highest ranked man in action on the first day here at the French Open yesterday was the world No 7, David Ferrer, who would sometimes have trouble filling a lift, let alone a tennis stadium. The top-ranked woman present on Philippe-Chatrier, the main show court, was Sam Stosur, the world No 6, who has not won a tournament since losing to Francesca Schiavone in the final here last year. No wonder business was slack for the ticket touts outside on the Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil.
The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament that begins on a Sunday. The start feels half-hearted: only eight courts were in action yesterday (15 will be in use today), with just four singles matches scheduled on each. Spectators on Philippe-Chatrier might have felt short-changed as Stosur, Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Julia Goerges coasted through their matches with straight-sets victories over Iveta Benesova, Jarkko Nieminen, Jan Hajek and Mathilde Johansson respectively.
Stosur noticed with a smile that there "weren't quite as many people this time", compared with the crowd for her 2010 final against Schiavone. "It's just different," the Australian said of the Sunday start. "With all the others not doing it, it's just weird knowing that my tournament starts on Sunday and now I think I'll get two days off. I guess there are still a lot more people here practising today than playing matches. You've just got to get your head around it."
It was perhaps fitting that one of the biggest items of news on the first day was a withdrawal. Lleyton Hewitt, who has not played for more than two months following foot surgery, was replaced in the draw by France's Marc Gicquel, who promptly lost to Spain's Albert Montanes.
While Hewitt is now one of the game's elder statesmen, two men who were only recently regarded as the best of a new generation also found themselves making other plans for the next fortnight. Marin Cilic became the first seed to go out, losing 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Spain's Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, while Ernests Gulbis was humiliated 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 by Slovenia's Blaz Kavcic.
Two years ago, as the game wondered who might be the next young players to emerge after the golden generation led by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, three men were bracketed together: Juan Martin del Potro, Cilic and Gulbis.
How times can change. Del Potro at least went on to win the 2009 US Open, although the Argentinian has had a difficult time since with injuries. The problems faced by Cilic and Gulbis have mostly been on out the court. Cilic, a former top 10 player who lost to Murray in the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year, has dropped to No 20 in the world rankings and will fall further after his latest defeat, in which he made 67 unforced errors. Ramirez Hidalgo, his conqueror, had lost in the first round in 13 of his previous Grand Slam appearances.
Gulbis was at his highest place in the world rankings at No 21 three months ago but has slipped to No 85. The hard-hitting Latvian first came to global attention with his victory over Tim Henman here four years ago. He won his first title last year, when he also beat Roger Federer in Madrid, but has won only three matches since this year's Australian Open. He made 55 unforced errors in losing to Kavcic, the world No 79, who is through to the second round of a Grand Slam for only the third time in his career.
Jelena Jankovic was the only other top 10 player of either sex in action. The 26-year-old Serb, three times a semi-finalist at Roland Garros in the last four years, got off to an effective start, beating the Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko 6-3, 6-1. "It's never easy, especially in the first round," Jankovic said. "You have to get your rhythm and get used to the conditions. Today was a little bit windy, so the ball was swirling around."
Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1, plays her opening match today against the veteran Japanese, Kimiko Date-Krumm. On Saturday Wozniacki won her fourth title of the year, coming from a set down to beat China's Peng Shuai 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the inaugural Brussels Open. The 20-year-old Dane, who was on court for more than five hours in her last two matches, played with her left thigh bandaged but insisted she would be fit for Paris.
"It's fine," she said. "There are no big problems. It was a small pain. I just didn't want it to get bigger. I feel in good shape. I don't feel tired at all. I am full of confidence."
Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion, started off with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova, while Schiavone, the 2010 winner, plays her first match today, against the American Melanie Oudin.
"I'm happy and ready," Schiavone said. "I made my mark in some ways at this tournament and this city – and maybe even a little bit in the world. That's something I'm very proud of. At the same time, I'm back at Roland Garros wanting to write another page in the history books, wanting to feel my best and to experience the joys I can feel playing tennis."
With Federer, Djokovic, Del Potro, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet also on the day two programme, nobody will doubt that the tournament is truly under way come close of play tonight.