PARIS (Agencies): Novak Djokovic launched his quest for a record-breaking 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title with a no-nonsense 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) first-round victory over debutant Aleksandar Kovacevic at the French Open on Monday.
The two-time champion breezed through the first two sets before encountering resistance from the 24-year-old American, whose lack of experience then showed in the tiebreak on the world’s biggest clay court.
Djokovic ended the contest with a sizzling service return on his first match point and will next face Hungarian journeyman Marton Fucsovics for a place in the third round.
“It’s always a pleasure to come back here, one of the best tournaments in the world,” said Djokovic, who made his Roland Garros debut in 2005.
“I’m very motivated to go far here, all the way I hope.”
Djokovic did not have an ideal buildup to the clay-court Grand Slam, missing the Madrid Masters and being eliminated in the last eight at the Italian Open in Rome, but he looked in good form in wind conditions.
On court Suzanne Lenglen, Benoit Paire kept his cool but could not avoid yet another defeat in the main tour when he was beaten in five sets by British 14th seed Cameron Norrie.
Paire, given a wild card, was up a break in the decider but could not close out the match. “I’m happy with all the efforts that I’ve been making for some time. So today it was a great match,” said world No. 149 Paire, who has not won in the main draw in a top tier event since August.
On ‘favorite court,’ Sloane Stephens eases into second round
PARIS: Back on her “favorite court in the world,” Sloane Stephens looked sharp in her opening match at the French Open with a 6-0, 6-4 win over two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova.
While Stephens’ only Grand Slam title came at the 2017 US Open, she has had sustained success at Roland Garros, finishing as a runner-up to Simona Halep in 2018 and reaching two other quarterfinals on the red clay in Paris, including last year.
“This is my favorite court in the world, so I’m super happy to be back,” Stephens told the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier. “To start a Slam on your favorite court, your favorite surface, is always incredible.”
Stephens helped American women go 4-0 through the first few hours of play on Day 2 of the tournament after a 1-4 start Sunday, when the only U.S. victory came in a match between two players from the country: Jessica Pegula beat Danielle Collins.
Madison Keys, the runner-up to Stephens in New York six years ago and a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2018, beat Kaia Kanepi 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 on Monday to improve her career record in the first round of majors to 35-5.
Keys next plays American qualifier Kayla Day, who eliminated French wild-card entry Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 6-1.
Also, Croatian-born American Bernarda Pera beat former No. 2-ranked Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (6), 6-2.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a finalist in Paris in 2021, breezed past Czech teenager Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 6-2, and 22nd-seeded Donna Vekic beat qualifier Dayana Yastremska 6-2, 7-5.
Stephens was down a break in the second set against Pliskova but then won three straight games to close it out. She had a 19-16 edge in winners and committed only 10 unforced errors to 31 by Pliskova, who lost in the finals of the US Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2021.
“This court is a bit tricky. You have to play on it a lot to understand when the wind is blowing and where it’s coming,” Stephens said. “The more you play on it, the more you understand it. But it’s a very complicated court. But that’s what makes it so amazing.”
Stephens won a small clay-court tournament in Saint Malo, France, at the start of the month and reached the semifinals of the Morocco Open last week after playing a total of three matches at bigger clay events in Madrid and Rome.
“Last year, my clay season wasn’t great, but I played amazing at Roland Garros last year,” Stephens said, “and this year, I really wanted to get matches and play a lot and to see where that got me.”
Pavlyuchenkova said she had feared for her career a year ago due to a knee problem. She said she was forced to go through extensive rehabilitation and stopped playing tennis completely for around five months, with the lack of physical activity during the process leaving her out of shape.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions because I was sad. I was close to crying, but also sad because I wasn’t sure what [comes] after,” Pavlyuchenkova said after her win. “There were also thoughts, like, ‘OK, what if I never come back? Or if I skip that long, because I’ve never done it. … What if I never win a match or never be back in good shape? What if that’s it?'”
The former world No. 11, who has slipped to 333rd in the rankings, stepped up her comeback with tour-level wins in Madrid and Rome before a run to the Strasbourg quarterfinals. She said she was “super focused” to avoid an early exit at the hands of her young opponent.
“I just focused on my game. I didn’t want to lose the first round,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I wanted to stay here as much as possible because it’s a very special place for me.”