Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova win in French Open returns, Rafael Nadal tested
(CNN) — She had been away from grand slams for 16 months but returning at the French Open on Tuesday, Serena Williams was still Serena Williams.
Serving brilliantly under pressure and lifting her game when trailing in a first-set tiebreak, the American — wearing a black catsuit — defeated Kristyna Pliskova 7-6 (7-4) 6-4 as early rain in Paris gave way to afternoon sunshine.
The 36-year-old is thus unbeaten as a mum at majors, having given birth in September.
Williams’ longtime rival Maria Sharapova endured a longer absence from Roland Garros after a drug suspension — and famously not receiving a wildcard last year — but the Russian also emerged victorious in the first round.
Her path was ultimately trickier, with Sharapova needing to overturn a break deficit in the third set against 133rd-ranked qualifier Richel Hogenkamp for a 6-1 4-6 6-3 win. It initially looked like the 31-year-old was destined for victory in an hour.
Such is his pedigree on clay that Rafael Nadal hardly experiences any drama at the French Open. But the record 10-time champion was forced to save a quartet of set points in a thrilling tiebreak prior to putting away the flashy Italian, Simone Bolelli, 6-4 6-3 7-6 (11-9), in the completion of their opener.
Williams’ tiebreak against the 70th-ranked Pliskova — twin sister of former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, who beat Serena at the 2016 US Open — felt decisive too.
Williams and Pliskova are two of the biggest servers in the women’s game.
Pliskova saved the lone break point of the first on Philippe-Chatrier court, a set point, at 5-6 with an ace. As a result, the Czech held the momentum going into the tiebreak and duly raced to a 3-0 advantage.
A combination of factors changed the complexion. Williams refused to donate any errors while Pliskova blinked, perhaps realizing how close she was to taking a set off the tennis great.
Indeed Pliskova likely wouldn’t have been thinking about Williams’ ranking of 451st — a result of her tour inactivity — but instead her 23 grand slam titles.
Pliskova regrouped for 2-0 in the second set but didn’t recover when broken from 40-15 in the ensuing game, although Williams needed to save a trio of break points to confirm her passage into the second round.
She raised her arms in celebration when a Pliskova forehand found the net.
Difficulty closing proceedings out was understandable given not only her time away from grand slams but also because Williams arrived at the French Open on a two-match losing skid.
Nonetheless, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou — never one to set the bar low — believes Williams can still land a fourth French Open title.
If she succeeds, Williams would tie Margaret Court for the all-time record in majors.
Her immediate thoughts will turn to her second-round foe, Ash Barty, who presents more danger to Williams than Pliskova.
Williams thumped Barty at the 2014 Australian Open before the Aussie took a break from the game and her 2017 breakthrough.
Sharapova earned a seeding of 28th this year and when she led 6-1 3-1 a smooth afternoon for the 31-year-old was certainly on the cards.
But her level dropped, the Dutchwoman’s increased and Sharapova suddenly found herself behind 3-0 in the third.
“I definitely stepped back a little bit and wasn’t as aggressive as I was through that 6-1, 3-1,” Sharapova told reporters.
Once describing herself as a “cow on ice” moving on clay, the French Open became Sharapova’s most successful grand slam with two of her five titles coming on the dirt. Which must have made not receiving the wildcard last year more painful.
But Sharapova, in Williams’ quarter of the draw, said she bore no grudges.
“Great to be in this draw,” said Sharapova, who picked up steam in Madrid and Rome this month following an arm injury. “Great to be back on a court that I have had great success at.
“I have always loved playing here. From a young age, it was a grand slam that was very difficult for me to do well at physically, mentally. I overcame that.”
Nadal conversely has almost always been successful at Roland Garros, winning his first title as a 19-year-old in 2005 and improving to 80-2 after his win over the 32-year-old Bolelli.
Bolelli was a lucky loser but that belies his dangerous, flat-hitting game. He was once considered a top prospect.
Even when Nadal rallied from a 0-3 deficit in the third set as the pair resumed the clash after rain Monday, Bolelli held firm.
He got his reward, building a 6-3 lead in the tiebreak and Nadal was on the verge of dropping a set in the first round at Roland Garros for the first time since 2013.
Nadal, though, responded in typical Nadal fashion. He struck three winners and changed direction on his serve at 6-7 to save the last set point.
Bolelli ripped forehand winners on the line to save two match points but on the third, his forehand landed in the net.
The overwhelming favorite in the men’s draw, Nadal said complacency would not be an issue.
As proof, he reeled off the number of titles he has won in Paris, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome. Forty in total.
“If you get complacent or too confident with yourself, for sure that’s not gonna happen,” said Nadal. “I was able to do all this result because I respect the sport, I respect every opponent, and I respect the competition every day.
“That’s the reason I have success, is because I go every day on court knowing that I can win, that I can lose.”
Nadal and Williams have done a lot more winning than losing in their careers.