'I didn't have a clue,' says Li Na after shock French Open exit

Chinese star joins fellow Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka on the first-round scrapheap

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 11:11am

Much to her dismay, Li Na is familiar with this feeling.

She earns a grand slam championship, is heralded at home, then shows up at subsequent major tournaments and seemingly forgets how to win.

Happened in 2011, after her French Open triumph made her China’s first player with a grand slam singles title.

Happened again on Tuesday, when Li was seeded second at Roland Garros but lost to someone ranked 103rd in the first round, not quite four months removed from winning the Australian Open.

“I didn’t follow the game plan,” said 32-year-old Li. “Didn’t have any idea how to play.”

My objective today was to grasp her by the throat immediately
Kristina Mladenovic

Her 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 exit against Kristina Mladenovic of France in front a partisan crowd on a cloudy, windy day three came about 16 hours after the men’s Australian Open champion, third-seeded Stan Wawrinka, was beaten in Paris – making this French Open already unlike any grand slam tournament in history.

It’s the first time that the men’s and women’s singles champions from the previous major lost in the first round.

"I think it doesn’t matter who plays today against me, I always lose the match. Today I just gave it away," said Li, who works with Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of four-time French Open titlist Justine Henin.

“Nobody say if you [are] No. 2 in the world, you have to win all the matches. I mean, this is tennis."

For an opening match at a major, the “tension is different”, she said. “Always tough to pass the first round.”

Mladenovic saved two set points in the opener, lost focus in the second but stepped up a gear again in the decider to triumph on her second match point.

“I don’t have the words to describe what  just happened," a weeping Mladenovic told the cheering crowd. "To beat the world number two in the first round at Roland  Garros, it’s incredible.

“I have played many players, but look at her backhand, cross-court backhand, she’s an atomic bomb,” Mladenovic said. “My objective today was to grasp her by the throat immediately.”

Mladenovic, who was Australian Open mixed doubles champion this year with  Daniel Nestor, goes on to face Alison Riske of the United States.

Top players, even the likes of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, frequently talk about being particularly jittery at the start of a grand slam tournament, even against clearly outclassed competition.

They notice, to be sure, when folks such as Li or Wawrinka depart quickly.

“Regardless of what’s happened to the other players,” said reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who won in four sets on Tuesday, “I still hoped that I would try or be able to find ways through my first match and negotiate my way through a tricky opponent in these conditions.”

This French Open has seen some rough going for several past major champions and other highly seeded players, and the second round has yet to begin.

No. 13 Caroline Wozniacki, the 2009 US Open runner-up, was beaten, less than a week after her planned wedding to golf star Rory McIlroy was called off; No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov, considered an up-and-coming threat by many, lost to Ivo Karlovic; two seeded men, No. 16 Tommy Haas and No. 21 Nicolas Almagro, quit during the first set because of injuries; past grand slam titles winner Lleyton Hewitt also lost.

Wozniacki said: “I was not prepared for this, it all came as a bit of a shock. I want to  thank everyone for their support and sweet messages. I have to move on from this.” 

Earlier, fourth-seeded Simona Halep made it through to the second round while Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm did not.

Halep won 11 straight games at the start and beat Alisa Kleybanova of Russia 6-0, 6-2.

“I was thinking at that moment, at 5-0, that I can win 6-0, 6-0, but wasn’t too good,” Halep said. “I was a little bit relaxed after that, and it was cold. I felt a little bit in my back.

“But I stayed focused after two games lost, and then I served really well.”

The 22-year-old Romanian has never been past the second round at Roland Garros, but she entered the clay-court major as one of the favourites following a run to the quarter-finals at the Australian Open.

Date-Krumm, the oldest woman in the field at 43, had an up-and-down match against 24th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, eventually losing 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

Date-Krumm is the third oldest player in French Open singles history; Martina Navratilova was 47 in 2004. She made her main-draw debut at Roland Garros in 1989 – before more than half of this year’s women’s field was even born.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters