World No. 2 Naomi Osaka had to dig deep to defeat Romanian Patricia Maria Tig 6-4, 7-6 as the four-time Grand Slam winner began her French Open campaign on the opening day on Sunday hoping to improve on her record at the claycourt major.
Osaka has not made it past the third round at her previous appearances at Roland Garros and arrived in Paris with only three matches under her belt on clay after early defeats in Madrid and Rome.
But the Japanese four-time major winner showed no signs of being distracted on a sun-bathed Philippe Chatrier court by the lively debate after her announcement that she would not hold press conferences at the French Open for mental health reasons.
Her media boycott did not include the post-match court-side interview, and asked about how she adapts her game to the surface, Osaka said: “It’s a work in progress. Hopefully the more I play the better I play. I’m really glad that I won. It’s a beautiful court. I’ve only played two matches here (on Philippe Chatrier), one before the roof and one now, so hopefully I’ll keep it going.”
The 23-year-old Osaka, who missed last year’s tournament due to a hamstring problem, was not keen on engaging in long rallies and seemed too powerful against the 63rd-ranked Tig.
She stamped her authority on the match early by racing to a 5-2 lead with winners flowing from both her forehand and backhand. But the Romanian staged a fightback late on to get the set back on serve at 4-5 after saving three setpoints.
The break of serve seemed to have fired up Osaka as she broke Tig to love to win the opener, advancing to the net to hit a backhand off her opponent’s attempted dropshot.
The second set went on serve and Tig saved a breakpoint and a matchpoint to take it into a tiebreaker.
Osaka sealed it with a backhand winner - her 39th in the match compared with her opponent’s 19 - to set up a second round meeting with another Romanian in Ana Bogdan, who beat Italian Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-1, 6-3.
Petra Kvitova, a semi-finalist in 2012 and 2020, saved a match point before seeing off Belgian qualifier Greet Minnen, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1.
The 11th seeded Czech, a two-time Wimbledon champion, blitzed 43 winners but served up 11 double faults against her 125th-ranked opponent.
Three-time major winner Angelique Kerber, the German 26th seed and twice a quarter-finalist in Paris, fell at the first hurdle, losing to Ukrainian qualifier Anhelina Kalinina 6-2, 6-4.
The win was a 14th successive win for the world number 139 Kalinina across all tournaments.
"I'm looking forward to Wimbledon, it sounds much better for me, so I'm happy that the next Grand Slam is on grass," said Kerber.
While Osaka refuses to speak, Greek men's world No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas had plenty to offer at his pre-tournament media conference, even quoting Britain's Second World War leader Winston Churchill at one stage.
Tsitsipas, who faces home player Jeremy Chardy on Sunday, is widely tipped as a potential champion should 13-time winner Rafael Nadal or world No. 1 Novak Djokovic falter.
The 22-year-old took Djokovic to five sets in the 2020 semi-finals. He has already captured the Monte Carlo Masters and Lyon titles on clay this season. He also had a match point to defeat Nadal in the Barcelona final before the Spaniard recovered.
Tsitsipas has the advantage of being in the opposite half of the draw to Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer and their combined 58 Slams.
Also in action Sunday is fourth seed Dominic Thiem, the 2018 and 2019 runner-up to Nadal. US Open champion Thiem faces Spanish veteran Pablo Andujar who defeated Federer on clay in Geneva last week.
Fresh from her first career clay court title in Madrid, Belarusian third seed Aryna Sabalenka faces Croatian qualifier Ana Konjuh. The 144th-ranked Konjuh was runner-up in Belgrade last week when she was forced to retire with an injury against Spain's Paula Badosa. Former top 20 player Konjuh has undergone four surgeries on her right elbow in recent years, even falling out of the top 1,000 in 2019. Badosa was amongst early winners on Sunday, defeating Lauren Davis of the United States 6-2, 7-6.
This year's French Open is being played just seven months after the delayed 2020 tournament.
In total, just over 5,000 spectators a day will be admitted at the Roland Garros site until June 8. That figure will then rise to more than 13,000 a day thanks to the government's decision to raise fan numbers to a 65 percent limit of capacity. The main setback for organisers, however, is that nine of their scheduled 10 evening sessions - an innovation for 2021 - will be played behind closed doors. A government curfew of 9pm will not be lifted until June 9.