By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams barely got their shoes dusty at the French Open on Tuesday but two of the top five women’s seeds went out and Andy Murray survived the first round by the skin of his teeth.
World number one Djokovic, back on the Philippe Chatrier Court where Stan Wawrinka snatched the title from his grasp a year ago when a career slam loomed, crushed Taiwan’s Lu Yen-hsun 6-4 6-1 6-1.
Nadal found big-serving Australian Sam Groth even more compliant as the Spaniard began his tilt at a 10th Roland Garros title with a 6-1 6-1 6-1 victory.
Reigning champion and top seed Williams completed the Chatrier programme by polishing off Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova 6-2 6-0.
Predictable day three most definitely was not, though.
Germany’s Angelique Kerber, who four months ago downed Williams to win the Australian Open, was sent tumbling out by flying Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens who won 6-2 3-6 6-3.
Third seed Kerber was troubled by a shoulder injury while later fifth seed Victoria Azarenka, the former world number one, hobbled out with a knee injury against Italy’s Karin Knapp when she trailed 4-0 in the deciding set.
The women’s draw has now lost three of the top seven seeds after Italian Robert Vinci’s demise on Monday.
“First rounds are always tough in the tournament, especially for me. What can I say? It happens,” Kerber told reporters.
It rarely happens to the leading men though.
Djokovic has not exited a slam in the first round since the 2006 Australian Open and a repeat never looked possible as he began a familiar quest for the one major title to elude him.
“It’s not the first time that I’m experiencing such anticipation and expectations,” Djokovic said.
“Whether or not I’m going to have a chance to fight for a trophy that’s in Almighty’s hands, I can’t influence that, but I can certainly give my best.”
Nadal’s only taste of a round-one defeat came at Wimbledon three years ago and there was never any chance of another meltdown as he leaked just three unforced errors.
World number two Murray is equally reliable — his last first-round exit coming at the 2008 Australian Open.
That record looked in severe peril on Tuesday, however, as he became embroiled in an engrossing battle of wits with Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek, at 37 the oldest man in the draw.
Murray, 29, had partially dug himself out of a deep hole on Monday night when he lost the first two sets to an inspired opponent before winning the third and taking a 4-2 lead in the fourth when bad light intervened.
Despite the precarious nature of his position, most expected Murray to overwhelm Stepanek when play resumed.
Having levelled it up, however, Stepanek rediscovered the unorthodox wizardry that so flummoxed Murray on Monday and came within two points of becoming the oldest man since Jimmy Connors (aged 38) in 1991 to win a round at the French Open.
Murray was staring down the barrel at 4-5, 15-30 in the decider but a sweetly-struck Stepanek backhand was millimetres too low and his chance was gone.
The nerves jangled when Murray double-faulted on his first match point and his relief was obvious when Stepanek netted a volley. “Today was pretty stressful,” he said.
“It is unbelievable what he is doing. He had a bad injury last year yet at 37 is still coming out and fighting like that.”
There were mixed fortunes for two former women’s champions.
Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone, who lifted the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in 2010, was bundled out in the first round by French hope Kristina Mladenovic but 14th seed Ana Ivanovic, champion in 2008, beat France’s Oceane Dodin 6-0 5-7 6-2.
Sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga led a quintet of Frenchmen into the second round, while other seeds to advance included Austrian dark horse Dominic Thiem, American John Isner, Czech Tomas Berdych and 2013 runner-up David Ferrer.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Julien Pretot)
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