Thiem faces tough French Open start as Nadal, Serena pursue records

Paris (AFP) –


Newly-crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem must confront his emotions and a testing first-round opponent at Roland Garros on Monday as Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams begin their assault on Grand Slam records.

Thiem, the runner-up to Nadal here the past two years, captured his maiden Slam in New York and will try to become the only man in the Open era to win his first two majors at successive tournaments.

He has been dealt a challenging draw though, with 2014 US Open Marin Cilic -- who Thiem beat on his title run at Flushing Meadows -- first up on the French Open clay.

"It's now a tournament coming up where I did great the last four years, where I really want to do great as well this year," said Thiem.

"I'll see how I handle all the emotions, also all the physical challenges which happen in New York," he added.

"In the past I was not that great playing the tournaments after big titles like Indian Wells last year or Vienna.

"I've always played not that great the following week. I try to do it different here in Paris, try to be on top of my game from Monday on."

World number two Nadal embarks on what he has described as his "most difficult ever Roland Garros" in his quest to match Roger Federer's record 20 major titles.

The Spaniard, who won the first of his 12 French Open titles in 2005, arrives short of preparation and unhappy with the French Open's choice of new balls.

"The conditions here are probably the most difficult conditions for me ever at Roland Garros for so many different facts," said Nadal.

"The ball is completely different. It is super slow, heavy. It's also very cold, slow conditions."

Nadal has been beaten just twice in 95 matches at the tournament but now must adjust to the unusual autumnal chill following the coronavirus crisis that pushed the event back from its traditional May-June time slot.

The competition began Sunday amid steady drizzle in temperatures struggling to reach 10 degrees (50F), conditions branded "ridiculous" by US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka.

- Rain holds up play again -

Play on Monday was delayed by more persistent rain. Twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova defeated Oceane Dodin 6-3, 7-5 in the only match to start on time under the new roof on Court Philippe Chatrier.

The heavier atmosphere could negate some of Nadal's lethal topspin as he heads into the event without a clay title under his belt for the first time.

The second seed is not pleased the French Open has switched to a new ball supplier and even believes it could pose physical problems for the players.

"I really believe that the organisation needs to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders," said Nadal.

However a first-time meeting with Egor Gerasimov, the world number 83 from Belarus, is unlikely to trouble him.

In the women's draw, Williams launches another attempt to clinch an elusive 24th Grand Slam title on her least successful surface.

She has not gone beyond the last 16 in Paris since her defeat to Garbine Muguruza in the 2016 final.

The former world number one skipped Rome after sustaining an Achilles injury in her US Open semi-final loss but is confident of making a challenge for a fourth Roland Garros crown.

"I wouldn't be playing if I didn't think I could perform," said Williams, who turned 39 on Saturday.

"I'm not at 100% physically. But I don't know any athlete that ever plays physically when they're feeling perfect. That's just something I think as athletes we have to play with."

Williams takes on American Kristie Ahn in a repeat of their US Open first-round tie, and is playing at Roland Garros for the 18th time, having made her debut in 1998.

Her last major came at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. Since giving birth to baby Olympia, she has reached four finals in nine attempts without being able to land an elusive 24th Slam to equal Margaret Court.

Overall prize money at this year's event is down 11 percent at 14,491,000 euros, but players beaten in the first round will receive 60,000 euros -- a 30 percent increase compared to 2019.