Knowing her first match as the French Open’s defending champion was scheduled for late in the day, Maria Sharapova decided to treat herself to some down time at a local park.
Nothing like a little introspection before competition.
“I remember myself sitting in the same position last year... You think back to those moments, and you go through the changes and the additions and the minuses, and all the things you have in your life, and at the end of the day, I’m still doing the same thing,” she said. “And I love it just as much, which puts a big smile on my face.”
Nearly a decade removed from her first Grand Slam title, Sharapova set out to win what would be major No. 5 with a rather quick and simple 6-2, 6-1 victory on Monday over Taiwanese world No. 42 Hsieh Su-wei in the first round at Roland Garros.
“You look at the playground in the park and then you know four hours later you’re going to be on one of the center courts, going to be playing in front of thousands of people,” said Sharapova, who did not double-fault or face a break point during her 54-minute match. “That just still gets [me] really excited.”
Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam with last year’s French Open trophy, adding it to the ones from Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. She never got the chance to defend that last one in 2009 because she was sidelined with a right-shoulder injury that required surgery in 2010.
There is certainly something special about returning to the site of a championship, as she did on Monday.
“It’s nice to come back to a place where you feel like you’re part of its history,” Sharapova said. “Where your name will always be [engraved] somewhere on the wall or on the trophy.”
Rafael Nadal, an 11-time major champion, also knows that feeling well, of course — especially in Paris, where he has won a record seven titles, including the past three.
His bid to become the only man with eight championships at any Grand Slam tournament got off to a slow start on Monday, before he restored order by coming back to beat world No. 59 Daniel Brands 4-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-4, 6-3.
For the better part of two sets, it was not all that different from Nadal’s previous match at a Slam — early round, main stadium, unknown opponent taking risky swings and putting everything in. At Wimbledon nearly a year ago, it was 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol who took it to Nadal and beat him in the second round.
“He was trying to hit every ball as hard as he can,” said Nadal, who improved to 37-2 this season, with 16 victories in a row. “He made me suffer, I can tell you.”
Brands came in with a 0-4 win-loss record at the French Open and his strategy was right out of Rosol’s playbook — keep points short and aim for the lines.
“That’s the way. If you give Nadal time, there’s no chance. You have to be aggressive. That’s my view,” Rosol, who’s now ranked 36th, said on Monday after winning his first-round match. “If other players play aggressive against him, that’s the only way to beat him.”
Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coach, saw similarities with the last time his nephew played at a Grand Slam.
“Yes, it was a little the same,” Toni Nadal said. “Against Rosol, in the fifth set, we couldn’t do anything.”
When asked whether there is a pattern being established as to the type of foe who can bother Rafael Nadal, Toni Nadal shrugged that off, replying: “When you play against an opponent who serves really well, who puts in a high percentage of first serves and who hits balls really fast, it’s complicated for everyone — not just for Rafael.”