As if the Roland Garros women’s field wasn’t any more wide open, by 7:00 p.m. on Monday, the top seed was gone, the second seed had hardly played well – and another significant contender had taken nearly three hours to win her opener.
Yesterday, it took all of 82 desultory minutes for world number one Angelique Kerber to be dispatched by Ekaterina Makerova, 6-2, 6-2. “The pressure is always there,” said Kerber after the match. “This year, I mean, the expectations are much bigger, especially in the big tournaments and the Grand Slams. And the expectations are also from me really big, of course, because I know what I can do, what I did last year.”
Then, Monday afternoon, second-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the player Kerber had beaten in last year’s US Open final, labored to get by Saisai Zheng, 7-5, 6-2. Like Kerber, Pliskova too spoke of that beguiling, illusory but genuine factor known as pressure. “There are always some nerves and some kind of pressure,” said Pliskova in her two question post-match press conference. “Especially on Grand Slam it's a little bit hard and on the normal tournaments. I'm just trying somehow to not to put it inside me and not into my head.”
So naturally, in the wake of Kerber’s exit and Pliskova’s struggle, it seemed to make sense that native daughter Kristina Mladenovic would also be challenged. Mladenovic, long a spoiler who previously in Paris had taken out the likes of Eugenie Bouchard and Li Na, had this year improved significantly, her ranking soaring from 42 at the end of ‘17 to #14 on the eve of Roland Garros.
Mladenovic was up against American Jennifer Brady, a former UCLA player who’d made a nice run to the round of 16 at Australian Open – and since then gone 0-6.
But after the two split the first two sets, Brady went up 3-0 in the third. Mladenovic is a power hitter, in many ways similar to the last French woman to win the singles here, Mary Pierce. And like Pierce, Mladenovic for much of this match could hardly find the court, her shots flying long, her footwork constantly betraying her.
As the match wore on, Mladenovic engaged the chair umpire in dialogue, a move that arguably was done to either buy some time on this muggy day, disrupt Brady or get the crowd more animated.
Similar to her Melbourne effort, Brady savored the moment, often smiling even deep into the third. But in time, at 7-all in the decider, Mladenovic got the final break, served out the match and came to the net in fighting back tears in the wake of having just squeaked out a win.
Kerber and Pliskova had earned the right to expect much. Alas, one had been vanquished, the other had lurched forward just well enough. Brady, four months removed from her last victories, had made a bold foray. And Mladenovic had overcome doubt and at last found deliverance; though, yes, she too would admit, only for a day. It is fascinating indeed how even pro tennis players can be so skilled at striking the ball – and yet, in their own ways, attempt to grapple with such externalized notions as pressure, expectations and all the demons that dance inside the brain.