PARIS - Novak Djokovic’s bid for an historic Grand Slam enjoyed the perfect French Open start on Monday as Roger Federer celebrated his 50th straight major with a record-equalling 233rd Grand Slam win. Top seed Djokovic, bidding to become only the third man to hold all four majors at the same time, and the first in 43 years, eased past Italian claycourt specialist Potito Starace 7-6 (7/3), 6-3, 6-1.
World number one Djokovic already has the Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open crowns under wraps and a first French Open triumph in two weeks’ time would make him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the sweep. “Potito is a specialist on this surface but I played well considering it was the first match at this year’s Roland Garros,” said Djokovic, who won rousing applause for conducting his on-court interview in French. “I hope to go on and get good results, but it’s too early to talk about the final.”
Djokovic has yet to reach a Paris final, having fallen three times at the semi-final stage. This year, he is scheduled to meet Federer in the last four. Federer, the 2009 champion and four times runner-up to Rafael Nadal, endured few problems getting past Germany’s Tomas Kamke, the world number 78, winning 6-2, 7-5, 6-3.
The win, achieved on a sixth match point, took him level with Jimmy Connors’ 30-year-old record of 233 Grand Slam match wins. Monday’s victory was also his 50th against 12 losses at Roland Garros having made his debut as a wildcard in 1999 where he went down to Australia’s Pat Rafter in the first round. Since that time, he has missed just one Grand Slam — the 1999 US Open where he failed to qualify.
“It’s a big record, because that was longevity. Jimmy is obviously one of the greats of all time, and was around for 20 years,” said 16-time Grand Slam title winner, who next faces Adrian Ungur of Romania. “I have been so successful for such a long time and to already tie that record which is 30 years old is pretty incredible.” World number one Victoria Azarenka narrowly avoided becoming the first women’s top seed to lose in the first round in a dramatic start to the second day of action. The Belarusian had to come from a set and 4-0 down to defeat Italian world number 105 Alberta Brianti 6-7 (6/8), 6-4, 6-2 and will face German qualifier Dinah Pfizenmaier for a place in the last 32.
But for much of her rollercoaster 2hr 16min battle with 32-year-old Brianti, who had never won a match in four previous main draw appearances at Roland Garros, Azarenka struggled. Brianti was on the verge of a 5-0 lead in the second set when Azarenka sent down a second serve ace to stay in contention, the point proving to be the significant moment in the tie.
Australian Open champion Azarenka, who finished with 60 unforced errors, came into Roland Garros nursing a shoulder injury and it appeared that she was heading for a shock exit until she reeled off 12 of the last 14 games.
“I started well but my game just collapsed,” admitted 22-year-old Azarenka, twice a quarter-finalist in Paris. “I tried to stay concentrated. I don’t know how I got out of it.” Defending champion Li Na of China advanced to the second round with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, a quarter-finalist in 2009. “I’ll just try my best,” Li said, when asked to rate her chances of a successful defence. “It’s tough for me to stay at the same level all the time.”
Li will face either Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic or France’s Stephanie Foretz Gacon for a place in the last 32. Women’s 11th seed Vera Zvonareva withdrew from the tournament suffering from a right shoulder injury. Also heading for the exit was German 12th seed Sabine Lisicki, who slumped to a 6-4, 6-3 defeat to America’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Australian veteran Lleyton Hewitt, a former world number one, lost 7-6 (7/2), 6-3, 6-7 (4/7), 6-3 to Slovenia’s Blaz Kavcic while Spanish 15th seed Feliciano Lopez retired against French qualifier Florent Serra with a stomach strain. American 10th seed John Isner, who took six-time champion Nadal to five sets in the first round last year, went through by beating Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.