It was a match with so many twists and turns that it’s almost impossible to describe it – but in the end, Tamara Zidanšek defeated No. 6 seed Bianca Andreescu in a spellbinding three hours and 20 minutes by a 6-7(1), 7-6(2), 9-7 score in the first round of Roland Garros.
The 23-year-old Slovenian was full value for the victory but the result could so easily have been different. Andreescu led 3-0 in the opening set and it seemed her Grand Slam champion pedigree was showing and that she would simply outclass the No. 85-ranked Zidanšek.
But soon the match was 3-all and then Zidanšek had a set point leading 5-4. Andreescu saved it and eventually overwhelmed her opponent 7-1 in the tiebreak that decided the set. It appeared as if order had been restored.
Zidanšek steadied in the second set and Andreescu dipped, allowing the Slovenian to take a 4-2 lead. Andreescu rallied to 4-4 and then both players held serve before trading service breaks at 5-all. In the tiebreak – opposite to the first set – Andreescu started poorly with three unforced errors and Zidanšek held her nerve to run it out 7-2.
The match was two hours and seven minutes old – but it was more as if it was just beginning.
Zidanšek led 2-1 and 0-40 on the Andreescu serve in the third set but the world No. 7 rallied to hold. The set went on serve to 4-4 when matters hit a fever pitch. Andreescu broke Zidanšek to lead 5-4 and served for the match but was broken right back – Andreescu misfiring with three forehands after being two points from victory at 30-15.
Leading 6-5, Zidanšek had a match point at 30-40 on the Andreescu serve but the 2019 US Open champ was fearless. She reacted by belting every shot full blast, with the final one being a screaming forehand cross-court winner.
Andreescu held serve and the match ventured into no-tiebreak, Grand Slam, third-set mayhem. At 7-all and serving, the Slovenian was in big trouble but played aggressively to save two break points and eventually hold.
In the decisive game, Zidanšek showed some impressive grit winning two points on a forehand inside/in winner and a full throttle forehand swing volley while Andreescu erred with a backhand and, on the ultimate match point, a forehand into the net.
One thing this match showed was a tennis truism – choking goes on in matches but it’s not terminal. A player can quickly get his or her nerve back and play well again.
That particularly applied to Zidanšek because Andreescu’s slightly superior weight of shot was getting to her but she didn’t ever let it make her lose faith. As for Andreescu, a lot of her performance and the end result comes down to her lack of adequate match competition in recent weeks – only two matches against players both ranked above No. 250 last week in Strasbourg. She showed flashes of the usual Bianca magic – bolting service returns and break-out winners from the baseline – but it wasn’t quite enough against a tenacious opponent. Zidanšek, against a better-prepared Andreescu, would be hard-pressed in a way she wasn’t on Monday. But what to say about the Slovenian’s overheads and swing volleys? – they were immaculate.
The match was played on a sunny, 24-degree day with enough tennis well-educated, Parisian spectators – mainly pro-Andreescu – on Court 14 to create a lively atmosphere for what turned out to be a sparkling encounter.
It was a tough loss for Andreescu but she showed her competitive spirit once again, but just lacked the match toughness to get over the line against an opponent who sensed vulnerability across the net and was emboldened to exploit it.
“I didn’t feel like I played good tennis today,” Andreescu said. “But at the same time, (Zidanšek) played really, really well. She threw me off a lot with her heavy, spinny shots and her variety.”
It’s really not that relevant to mention stats about a match that was so close and so dependent on the emotions of the moment – but Andreescu was 40/63 winners to unforced errors while Zidanšek was a more tidy 41/46.
“Physically I felt good,” Andreescu said. “I started to get a little bit tired at one point, but I think it mainly came from the mental side of things, because today I didn’t feel like I could control my emotions as well as I normally do.
“I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t play a lot of matches on clay. And even though I played really well in Strasbourg, so to me it’s super surprising. But, yeah, I tried my best with what I had today, but Tamara just really, really played well. But at least thinking on the positive side I’m healthy, and I was able to fight as hard as I could.”
There was an irony to Monday’s match – it was played on the same Court 14 where Andreescu toughed out a two-day 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Marie Bouzková of the Czech Republic two years ago before her shoulder issue forced her to withdraw before the second round. That was a very close one and so was Monday against Zidanšek.
“I think I prepared super, super well for this tournament,” Andreescu added. “That’s why to me it’s very disappointing, because I thought I could go far. I try not to, like, have a lot of expectations, but that comes naturally for anyone.”
She was uncertain about her immediate plans but is entered in WTA grass-court tournaments in Berlin and then Eastbourne starting the week of June 13th.
As for now, there’s reconciling herself with the result and moving forward, including her 21st birthday on June 16.
“I’m super passionate about this sport, and I want to continue to do great things and be an inspiration,” she summed up. “During these tough moments, I want to show a good example to a lot of people. It sucks right now for me. I can just right now learn from it, because that’s what life’s all about, you learn from your mistakes. I made a couple today, but that’s part of life.
“I just want to keep my head up, feel what I feel right now. I might cry a lot tonight, but tomorrow is a new day.”
Félix Auger-Aliassime, seeded No. 20, will hope to end a run of misfortune at the French Open when he starts out on Tuesday against No. 98-ranked Andreas Seppi.
Auger-Aliassime missed the event in 2019 when he suffered a groin injury during the final of the Lyon Open immediately before Roland Garros. Last year, he lost in the opening round to No. 52 Yoshihito Nishioka.
This year he enters Roland Garros with a modest 4-5 record on European terre battue this spring.
The 37-year-old Seppi is playing in his 63rd consecutive Grand Slam tournament, putting him fourth place behind record holder Feliciano López who will extend his leading streak to 76 at this year’s Roland Garros.
Seppi, who may be best known for upsetting Roger Federer at the 2015 Australian Open, has dealt with a chronic hip ailment in recent years. It has limited his play and he needs cortisone shots twice a year requiring him to take about a three-week break to recover. Originally he didn’t plan to play on clay this spring but he changed his mind and enters Roland Garros with one match on the surface, a 6-3, 6-4 loss in the first round of Parma, Italy, last week to eventual winner Sebastian Korda. Seppi’s life-time record at the French Open is 11-15.
It’s a first meeting for Auger-Aliassime and Seppi and it will be played on Court 13, second after a men’s match that starts at 11:00 a.m. (5:00 a.m. ET Canada). The winner gets a second round against either No. 91-ranked Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea or No. 100 Kevin Anderson of South Africa.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak