When Roland Garros added night sessions to its schedule for the first time this year, the French Open organizers knew they would need a star for the opening night.
Step forward, Serena Williams.
Though there were no fans allowed inside the Court Philippe Chatrier stadium Monday night, due to the 9 p.m. Paris curfew aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19, Williams lit up a warm early summer’s evening with a 7-6 (6), 6-2 win over Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania, the world No. 74.
“I have to say it was pretty cool to be able to play the first night session ever here at Roland Garros,” she said afterward. “That was something I thoroughly enjoyed.”
The 23-time Grand Slam champion had to work for it, saving two set points in the first-set tiebreak, but she pulled away in the second to reach the second round.
Initially, there were rumors that the French Tennis Federation had planned to fill the 10 night sessions with a men’s match each night, though that was denied by Roland Garros tournament director Guy Forget.
Forget told ESPN on Monday that Williams was the perfect fit to showcase the new time slot.
“When we made the program, several options were available to us,” Forget said. “This one seemed to us symbolically the strongest and most interesting to initiate this first evening session. We are happy to welcome Serena for this historic occasion.”
Watching Williams win at night is nothing new.
According to the USTA, at the US Open — where she is a six-time champion and has won a record 106 matches — Williams has played 53 official night matches and won 44 of them.
And at the Australian Open, where Williams has captured the title seven times, she has won 14 of her 15 matches played at night, across all courts, dating back to 2008, the WTA said.
“Ironically enough, night sessions are not my favorite matches, but I do have a good record at it,” she said Monday. “Clearly something about it gets me hyped.”
Compared to the electric atmosphere Williams is used to at the US Open — with the exception of 2020 — Monday’s encounter in Paris was understandably flat, the noise of the players’ support teams the only sound other than that of racquet on ball.
But Williams, dressed in lime green, with matching shoes — emblazoned with a number of messages including one in French — “je n’arreterai jamais,” which translates to “I will never give up” — made light of the lack of atmosphere. Her performance was a vast improvement on her efforts in her two warm-up events, in Rome and Parma, where she won just one match.
Though Williams has won the title in Paris on three occasions, in 2002, 2013 and 2015, clay has always been her toughest surface. It’s a surface that gives opponents the opportunity to chase down balls that might otherwise be winners on faster hard courts or grass.
She reached the final in 2016, losing to Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, but since returning to the Tour in 2018 after the birth of her daughter, Williams has not been past the last 16 in Paris.
And Begu made it tough. Williams served for the opening set at 5-3 but could not close it out, and Begu won three straight games to lead 6-5, only to falter as Williams forced a tiebreak.
At 6-4 in the tiebreak, the Romanian held two set points, but it was then that the 39-year-old Williams showed her mettle, saving both, the second with a stunning drive volley. She then clinched the set two points later with another drive volley, prompting a trademark Williams roar.
Williams, who is still chasing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, then broke early in the second set and won a long sixth game before finishing things off.
On Tuesday, Novak Djokovic will take center stage in the night session, the world No. 1 starting off against American Tennys Sandgren.
The Serb pointed to his own good record in night sessions and said he was looking forward to it, although he had not known that it would be behind closed doors.
“Only thing is that I’m a little bit sad that there’s not going to be a crowd,” he said after finding out. “Playing in front of an empty stadium in a Grand Slam will not be fun. Hopefully I can win the match and then have an encounter with a crowd in the next round.”
Forget said the 10 night sessions, including a June 9 match that will be played in front of 5,000 fans, will transform the tournament.
“The night sessions are the great new feature of this year,” he said. “We will discover another Roland Garros, another face.”
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