This unseasonal French Open, played in a twilight zone of frosty winds and low cloud, left Serena Williams struggling to reach operating temperature. For the opening hour of her match against Kristie Ahn, Williams was so sluggish and rooted to the spot that she could have been playing French cricket in the back garden with her daughter Olympia.
There were double-faults and shanked forehands, stumbles and wild volleys. It was only when Ahn served for the first set that Williams discovered a sense of urgency. Finally, the motor began to warm, and a hint of energy could be seen in those previously leaden feet. Williams broke back, before sweeping through the tie-break by a comfortable 7-2 margin. From there, normal service was resumed, and she didn’t lose another game on her way to a 7-6, 6-0 win.
Asked later what the difference had been between the two sets, Williams replied “I just needed to play with more confidence, like I'm Serena. I love the clay and I started playing like it, opening the court and moving and sliding.”
Even if clay is her weakest surface, Williams has still won this tournament three times. She has also reached that indefinable moment, 3½ years after her last major triumph, when people stop talking about her as one of the prime contenders. Even her next outing, against US Open semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday, has the look of a potential hurdle.
Meanwhile Rafael Nadal also moved through in straight sets. His obscure opponent, Egor Gerasimov of Belarus, managed to put up respectable resistance in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 defeat. But Nadal was solid, if unspectacular, in a performance that will quieten any concerns about his downbeat pre-tournament comments.
“I was not complaining,” said Nadal, in relation to his earlier stance on extreme conditions and dangerously heavy balls. “I was just saying the real situation. Is a different Roland Garros. Of course we play in the same place. But the conditions are completely different than any other Roland Garros that we played.
“But the only thing that, as I say the first day too, the only thing I can do is just stay positive, do my job, try my best every single day. That's what I did since I arrived here. Practised with the right attitude, being positive, and that's what I did today in the match.”
Earlier, Liam Broady had been rueful over his four-set defeat at the hands of Jiri Vesely, a near-contemporary whom he had formerly come up against when they were both ranked among the best juniors in the world.
Vesely – a 6ft 6in Czech with a booming lefty serve – has done a better job of converting that potential into performance on the senior tour, reaching a high point of No35 in the rankings and producing some particularly good wins at Wimbledon.
Unfortunately, Broady has never quite made the step up. There were all sorts of issues that held him back, one being a rift with his father over the funding he took from the Lawn Tennis Association. But his performances over the past week – which saw him come through qualifying with three straight-sets victories – suggest that he might be a late bloomer, finally discovering his game at the age of 26.
For this trip, Broady has reunited with his old coach and mentor Dave Sammel, whom he has known since he first turned up at Cheadle’s Matchpoint centre as a racket-wielding toddler. “Dave wants me to play in a way that's exciting, which not a lot of coaches want,” said Broady after a hard-fought 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 defeat. “He sees my game competing at the upper levels, and it’s fantastic to have someone with that belief in you.
“At this tournament, it was nice to justify some of the things he's been saying to me over the last three, four years, when my results haven't been going as well as they might have. I wouldn't put that down to his coaching as much as maybe sometimes my professionalism a little bit off the court. Hopefully we can push on from this and just see what the ceiling is.”