Li latest Oz champ to lose in Paris
PARIS -- Tennis, more than ever, is a volatile entity.
On Monday, the reigning Australian Open men's champion departed the French Open in the first round. Afterward, Stan Wawrinka all but admitted that the pressure of coming in as a major champion and being ranked No. 3 in the world undid him.
"I need to put the puzzle back together," Wawrinka said in his postmatch interview, "but differently than in the past, because now it's after winning Grand Slam, Masters 1000, being No. 3 in the world, everything is different. And I still didn't find all the pieces."
He's not the only champion searching for answers. On Tuesday, the other current Australian Open titleholder, Li Na of China, matched Wawrinka's shockingly early exit. The 2011 French Open champion came out oddly flat on this blustery day and fell 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 to a 21-year-old Frenchwoman named Kristina Mladenovic.
It was the first time in history that both reigning Grand Slam champions lost in the first round of the next major. The last time the No. 2 women's seed lost in the first round was 13 years ago, when Venus Williams was defeated by Barbara Schett.
The frenzied French crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier couldn't have been happier or more supportive as they watched Mladenovic's upset unfold.
How surprising was this? How about massive?
"It's never normal when you beat such a big name, big player," Mladenovic said later. "It's Li Na. So I need some time to realize that and to enjoy that."
Li is ranked No. 2 among WTA players; Mladenovic is No. 103 and had lost five of her previous six first-round matches at Roland Garros. In 13 previous tournaments this year, Mladenovic lost in the first round nine times and the second the other four.
"I gave it away, the match," a shattered-looking Li said afterward. "Today is not about tennis game. It's so many thing[s] are wrong."
And although she wouldn't elaborate on what those specific things were, it sounded eerily like Wawrinka's explanation.
"In my mind, I didn't have any idea how to play the match," Li said. "Maybe I'm not organized. Maybe I'm not prepared for myself to be the focus in this match. Today is not only about technique. I lose the match. Most important thing is in my mind. I should find out why I could not put focus on this match."
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Mladenovic, who was decked out in vibrant orange nail polish (matching her visor and shorts), was the girls' junior champion on these courts of red clay in 2009. And Mladenovic is already a Grand Slam champion; earlier this year, at age 20, she won the mixed-doubles title in Melbourne with Daniel Nestor. Even at age 17, she lost a first-round match to Li at Roland Garros by the respectable score of 7-5, 6-3.
Mladenovic, a big hitter, actually maintained her poise better in big moments. She converted five of 10 break points and had only 25 unforced errors -- one dozen fewer than Li.
"I knew exactly what I had to do," Mladenovic said, "what she didn't like to try and hurt her so that she would make unforced errors on the forehand. So this is what I did, I deployed my game plan really well. I put more strength into my shots to bother her.
"So my objective today was to grasp her at the throat immediately."
When it was over, her smile was as big as the David Letterman-like gap between her two front teeth. Later, Li insisted that the pro-French crowd had nothing to do with the result.
"It doesn't matter who [I] play today, doesn't matter where she's from," she said. "Today my opponent will win the match because I threw myself away."