Li falls in first round
PARIS -- Much to her dismay, Li Na is familiar with this feeling.
She earns a Grand Slam championship, is heralded at home, then shows up at subsequent major tournaments and seemingly forgets how to win.
Happened in 2011, after her French Open triumph made her China’s first player with a Grand Slam singles title. Happened again Tuesday, when Li was seeded second at Roland Garros but lost to someone ranked 103rd in the first round, not quite four months removed from winning the Australian Open.
"I didn’t follow the game plan," Li said. "Didn’t have any idea how to play."
Her 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 exit against Kristina Mladenovic of France in front a partisan crowd on a cloudy, windy Day 3 came about 16 hours after the men’s Australian Open champion, third-seeded Stan Wawrinka, was beaten in Paris -- making this French Open already unlike any Grand Slam tournament in history.
It’s the first time that the men’s and women’s singles champions from the previous major lost in the first round.
"Nobody say if you (are) No. 2 in the world, you have to win all the matches. I mean, this is tennis," said Li, who works with Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of four-time French Open titlist Justine Henin.
For an opening match at a major, the "tension is different," she added. "Always tough to pass the first round."
Top players, even the likes of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, frequently talk about being particularly jittery at the start of a Grand Slam tournament, even against clearly outclassed competition.
They notice, to be sure, when folks such as Li or Wawrinka depart quickly.
"Regardless of what’s happened to the other players," said reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who won in four sets Tuesday, "I still hoped that I would try or be able to find ways through my first match and negotiate my way through a tricky opponent in these conditions."
This French Open has seen some rough going for several past major champions and other highly seeded players, and the second round has yet to begin.
No. 13 Caroline Wozniacki, the 2009 U.S. Open runner-up, was beaten Tuesday, less than a week after her planned wedding to golf star Rory McIlroy was called off; No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov, considered an up-and-coming threat by many, lost to Ivo Karlovic; two seeded men, No. 16 Tommy Haas and No. 21 Nicolas Almagro, quit during the first set because of injuries; past Grand Slam titles winner Lleyton Hewitt also lost.
One person pleasantly surprised to finally feel what it’s like to win in the first round is 66th-ranked Marinko Matosevic of Australia, who was 0-12 at Grand Slam tournaments before beating Dustin Brown of Germany 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-7 (1), 7-5.
"Huge relief," said Matosevic, who now meets No. 7 Murray. "It got pretty demoralizing at some stages. I had some tough draws. When I did have my chances, I just couldn’t quite do it."
Li hung her head when she sailed a stroke long on match point for her 37th unforced error, 12 more than Mladenovic. At the opposite baseline, Mladenovic raised both arms, then covered her mouth with her trembling left hand, trying to process what had just happened. Soon, the 21-year-old Mladenovic was choking back tears.
"It’s never normal when you beat such a big name, big player," said Mladenovic, who had been 1-5 at the French Open before Tuesday, including a loss to Li in 2010.
She faced two set points in the opener while trailing 5-4 but erased both and took three games in a row to nose ahead.
"This is really big," Mladenovic said. "You don’t beat Li Na every day."
Unless, that is, you catch her coming off one of the true highs in her inconsistent career. Three years ago, after the big breakthrough in Paris, Li lost in the second round at Wimbledon, then the first round at the U.S. Open.
Her analysis of this defeat was not all that charitable toward Mladenovic -- "doesn’t matter who plays today against me ... I gave it away" -- but Li insisted the result was "not about technique."
"Important thing is in my mind," she said. "I think I should find out what happened."
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.