When Serena Williams plays her first-round match here at the French Open on Tuesday she will be hoping to do better than another returning mother. Victoria Azarenka, playing at Roland Garros for the first time since giving birth 18 months ago, was beaten 7-5, 7-5 on Monday by the Czech Republic’s Katerina Siniakova, who had lost in the first round in all three of her previous appearances here.
Azarenka, a two-times Australian Open champion and former world No 1, returned to competition last summer, but played in only two tournaments. As a result of a custody dispute with her son’s father, the 28-year-old Belarusian withdrew from subsequent events and did not reappear until this year’s Indian Wells tournament.
Having reached the second round in California, Azarenka then beat five higher-ranked opponents in a row – including Madison Keys, Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova – in her next event in Miami, where she lost to Sloane Stephens in the semi-finals.
Although she is a former semi-finalist here, clay has often been a challenge for Azarenka. She made early exits in Madrid and Rome earlier this month and struggled here against Siniakova, the world No 54. The first 11 games went with serve, but Siniakova broke to love in the 12thgame to take the first set.
Azarenka was twice a break up in the second set, but when she served at 5-6 she was broken to love once again as Siniakova secured a second-round meeting with Kateryna Kozlova, who beat Jelena Ostapenko, the defending champion, on Sunday.
“I haven’t played in a while and I haven’t been able to prepare in the way that I want to prepare,” Azarenka said afterwards.“I know there are going to be ups and downs in my game and I have to work through them. I did work through them. I just didn’t find the right choices today, and I have to just keep going.
“It’s not going to be easy way for me. I need to get back and to practise, and I need to figure some things out why I’m not doing the right things that I do in the practice.”
Asked if she believed she could return to the top, Azarenka said: “No doubt about it. Maybe not today, but no doubt about it.”
Azarenka was also asked about the debate over whether Williams should have been seeded here, despite the fact that the 23-times Grand Slam champion is currently ranked outside the world’s top 400, having played only four matches in the last 17 months.
“This conversation was not on the table last year when I was coming back and I was not seeded at Wimbledon,” Azarenka said.“If we talk in terms of rule, the rule has to be for everybody.”
Azarenka said the maternity issue was being discussed by the Women’s Tennis Association and stressed that Williams had not been protesting about the decision not to seed her here.
Petra Kvitova recovered from a shaky start against Veronica Cepede Royg before winning 3-6, 6-1, 7-5 after more than two hours. Cepede Royg, a clay-court specialist, found her stride immediately, while Kvitova struggled.
“It was really tough,” Kvitova admitted afterwards. “We played for over two hours. The first set was tough, but I started a bit more relaxed in the second set and tried to focus on every point.”
Although her game is better suited to faster surfaces, this was Kvitova’s 12th win in a row on clay after she won the titles in Prague and Madrid. “I feel a bit better physically on the court, which I think helps with my timing on my shots,” the two-times Wimbledon champion said when asked to explain her good form on clay.
Naomi Osaka, who won the Indian Wells title in March and beat Williams in Miami the following week, progressed to the second round with a 6-2, 7-5 victory over Sofia Kenin, of the United States.
Caroline Wozniacki, the Australian Open champion, recovered from an erratic start to beat the American Danielle Collins 7-6, 6-1. Karolina Pliskova, the No 6 seed, progressed at the expense of a fellow Czech, beating Barbora Krejcikova 7-6, 6-4.