Unpredictability, thy name is Roland Garros

Remember what I said about unpredictability at Roland Garros? We just received our latest dose of it; with 2011 women’s singles champion Li Na losing to 103rd-ranked, 21-year-old Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic (no, I had never heard of her either). As upsets go, this is about as big as they get, and pairs nicely with the loss of Wawrinka yesterday on the men’s side. As Greg Garber notes for ESPN, it’s “the first time in history both reigning Grand Slam champions lost in the first round of the next major.”

Yes, Li had not had the best clay court season to date this year. However, this level of regression coming from a former winner of this event makes it seem all the flukier. Li appears to be regressing in Paris; after her win in 2011, she’s exited in the fourth round, then the third, and follows it up with a first-round exit today. Mladenovic was routinely better when it mattered, breaking the reigning Aussie Open champ five times and committing 12 fewer errors than her opponent.

As Garber also notes, Mladenovic is a Grand Slam champion already, winning a mixed doubles title with Daniel Nestor while Li was busy capturing the singles title in Melbourne this year. This, combined with the staunchly pro-French crowd, probably informs the way that she rose to the occasion to defeat a heavy favorite in the first round. As she said herself after the match, she wanted to attack Li’s forehand, her weaker shot, and “grasp her at the throat immediately.” Point taken, and well demonstrated. It will be interesting to see if she can continue to translate her doubles game into singles success. The way she moved against Li shows she doesn’t lack for court mobility, which is significant when you remember how much more court there is to cover in singles than doubles. Not many have found great success in both disciplines, but the ones that have are some of the greatest ever, with names like Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, and the Williams sisters. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that singles titles shouldn’t be the only indicator of tennis greatness, but unfortunately, they are. A great doubles career is often a footnote to a memorable singles campaign. Kristina Mladenovic took the first step toward proving that she isn’t a one-dimensional talent, now let’s see if she can build on it. A word about that quarter of the draw going forward: watch Sara Errani.

Meet Kristina Mladenovic, 21, a naturalized French citizen, Grand Slam champion in mixed doubles, and vanquisher of the world number two in the first round of the French Open.

Meet Kristina Mladenovic, 21, a naturalized French citizen, Grand Slam champion in mixed doubles, and vanquisher of the world number two in the first round of the French Open.

As I said yesterday, winning never gets easier. You let up for even a second, and someone hungrier on that particular day will claw right past you and take your glory, leaving you wondering what happened and trying to, as Wawrinka said, “find all the pieces.” In a sport as individual as tennis, where you are all you have to keep yourself company out there, losing those pieces is all too easy, especially when a hungry opponent has the crowd behind him or her and is putting the game plan into effect with startling ferocity. The great ones adjust; figure out a way to quiet the crowd, to sway it to their side, to find a weakness in their opponent’s game. Do it once or twice, and you’re fondly remembered as having a great run. Do it over and over again, and that’s when you become more broadly appealing in a historical sense, something that few have done but all want.

In other news, Simona Halep and Ana Ivanovic both looked strong in straight-sets wins over their first round opponents. No reason to break out the bubbly just yet, but dominating early-round performance are seldom a bad thing. Keep it right here.