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Sabalenka eases at rainswept French Open as Djokovic eyes turnaround

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

Aryna Sabalenka eased into the French Open second round at a rainswept Roland Garros on Tuesday as Novak Djokovic prepared to begin his title defence, confident his Grand Slam pedigree will help turn around his lacklustre season.

Australian Open champion Sabalenka, a semi-finalist in Paris in 2023, overpowered Russian teenager Erika Andreeva 6-1, 6-2 in just 68 minutes under the roof on Court Philippe Chatrier.

World number two Sabalenka fired 27 winners past the 100th-ranked Andreeva and broke serve five times in a dominant display.

“I’m trying to do well on clay, it is tough conditions here but I enjoy playing here and I’m just trying to bring my best tennis every time — whatever the surface,” said Sabalenka.

The Belarusian has made at least the last four at her past six Grand Slams and is expected to be Iga Swiatek’s toughest rival in the Pole’s bid for a fourth French Open title.

Heavy rain caused play on the outside, uncovered courts to be delayed by five hours and by 6 pm local time only nine of the scheduled 40 matches had been completed.

World number one Djokovic, seeking a fourth Roland Garros title and record-extending 25th major, is enduring his worst run since 2018.

Djokovic, 37, has not won a title in 2024 and has yet to make a final with semi-final spots at the Australian Open and Monte Carlo Masters his best performances.

He also suffered the indignity of being accidentally hit on the head by a metal water bottle in Rome which caused nausea and dizziness.

In Geneva last week, where he was knocked out by Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic, Djokovic said he had been suffering from a stomach problem.

“They are rather bumps on the road,” said Djokovic, who watched his long-time rival and 14-time champion Rafael Nadal bow out of the tournament against Alexander Zverev on Monday.

When asked to elaborate further on his difficulties so far this season, Djokovic opted for discretion.

“Various things have been happening in the last couple of months, but I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to open Pandora’s Box.”

On Tuesday, Djokovic will take on French wildcard Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the world number 142 who hasn’t won a match on the main tour this year.

Two-time runner-up Casper Ruud, who won clay-court titles in Barcelona and Geneva in the build-up to Roland Garros, cruised to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Brazilian qualifier Felipe Meligeni Alves.

“It’s great to be back here at Roland Garros,” he said. “Hopefully I can make it another good year here.”

Ruud was beaten in straight sets by Novak Djokovic in last year’s final following a one-sided loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2022 showpiece. He also lost the 2022 US Open final to Carlos Alcaraz.

Frenchwoman Alize Cornet’s career ended with a straight-sets defeat by Zheng Qinwen in her record-extending 69th consecutive Grand Slam appearance.

Cornet was no match for China’s Australian Open runner-up Zheng, losing 6-2, 6-1.

She made her debut at Roland Garros as a 15-year-old in 2005 and has not missed a Grand Slam tournament since the 2006 US Open.

‘Cried watching Rafa’

Cornet reached a career-high ranking of 11th in 2009 and enjoyed a surprise run to the 2022 Australian Open quarter-finals.

“I already cried yesterday watching Rafa,” said a tearful Cornet after seeing Nadal lose what was likely his last match at the French Open on Monday.

Over on Court Suzanne Lenglen, former Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina powered into the second round with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Belgian Greet Minnen.

Kazakh world number four Rybakina is the only player to defeat Swiatek on clay this season, in the Stuttgart semi-finals in April.

Also due on court in the men’s singles is Argentine qualifier Roman Andres Burruchaga who has sporting success in the blood.

His father Jorge famously scored the winning goal for Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the 1986 World Cup final against West Germany.

Ranked at 144, the 22-year-old is making his Grand Slam debut and takes on Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff.

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