Serena Williams will continue her latest bid for an elusive 24th Grand Slam singles crown later on Wednesday at a French Open now without two of the world’s top three-ranked women’s players, while Alexander Zverev reached the men’s third round.
The 39-year-old Williams has already seen two of her likeliest title challengers, who have both beaten her in major finals in recent years, either fail to start the tournament or pull out in unprecedented circumstances.
World number three Simona Halep, the 2018 Roland Garros champion who defeated Williams a year later in the Wimbledon final, withdrew before the event with injury.
The biggest story of the French Open so far has undoubtedly been world number two Naomi Osaka’s shock withdrawal after a press boycott, saying she has been suffering with “bouts of depression” since her breakthrough victory over Williams in the controversial 2018 US Open showpiece match.
Serena, who has been one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Slams since winning the Australian Open four years ago, faces Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu in the second round.
The American, seeded eighth, saved two set points in the first set of her opening win over Irina-Camelia Begu — the first ever Roland Garros night match.
“I have to say it was pretty cool to be able to play the first night session ever here at Roland Garros. That was something I thoroughly enjoyed,” said Williams, who is back on Chatrier but during the day session against Buzarnescu.
That means she will play in front of a crowd for the first time this week, as the night sessions are currently being played behind closed doors due to the French government-imposed 9pm curfew.
Zverev battles through
Men’s sixth seed Zverev was in scratchy form but did enough to see off Russian qualifier Roman Safiullin in straight sets.
The German, last year’s US Open runner-up, will take on Serbia’s Laslo Djere in the third round after a 7-6 (7/4), 6-3, 7-6 (7/1) victory.
Zverev had needed to fight back from two sets down in his opening match against qualifier Oscar Otte.
“I’m happy to be through in three sets,” he said. “I’m happy not to have played another five-setter. I think it’s going to be important for me during the course of this tournament.”
Norwegian youngster Casper Ruud continued his excellent year by easing past Poland’s Kamil Majchrzak 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
The 15th seed, who won the title in Geneva last month and has reached three other semi-finals on clay this season, next faces Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Three-time quarter-finalist Kei Nishikori of Japan edged out Russian 23rd seed Karen Khachanov 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 after three hours and 59 minutes on Chatrier, setting up a last-32 encounter with Swiss qualifier Henri Laaksonen.
In the women’s draw, Swiss 10th seed Belinda Bencic failed to improve her poor French Open record as she lost 6-2, 6-2 to Russia’s Daria Kasatkina.
Bencic has still never made the second week in five appearances.
Later on Wednesday, second seed Daniil Medvedev will be hoping to back up his first-ever French Open win by going deep into the tournament.
The two-time Grand Slam runner-up is in the half of the draw without any major champions — with Dominic Thiem dumped out at the first hurdle and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer all in the opposite side.
The Russian, who had lost in the opening round on all four of his previous appearances, will face Tommy Paul of the United States for a place in round three in the evening match.
Despite Medvedev’s loftier ranking, Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas is probably the favourite to reach the final from the bottom half.
The 22-year-old lost an epic five-set semi-final in Paris last October to Djokovic and also made the last four of the Australian Open in February.
He will take on 103rd-ranked Spaniard Pedro Martinez in round two.