September 22, 2023

Open Court


Zhao’s triumphant return to Paris leads Canadians on Day 1 of RG qualies


ROLAND GARROS – For nearly three years, Canadian Carol Zhao had been battling a forearm injury and the pandemic to try to get back on court.

And after some success at the lower levels in her return, she finally made it back to Paris and Roland Garros Monday.

She had to wait through a long day – last on court with a number of rain delays. But when she finally got there, she was triumphant.

Zhao’s 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory over Russian Valeria Savinykh was nearly a carbon copy of a similar win against Savinykh just two weeks ago, in very different circumstances.

That was in the semifinals of a $25,000 ITF tournament in Salinas, Ecuador.

This was in one of the most famous arenas in tennis.

Almost bageled to start

Zhao clearly was tight at first, her strokes hitchy and her mindset to try to hit her way out of it.

That wasn’t working against Savinykh, a 30-year-old currently at No. 167, whose career high of No. 97 came back in 2017.

She was eating up the pace like a late Paris summer.

Game variety helps Zhao to victory

Soon, though, Zhao remembered what brought her to the win in Ecuador, where Savinykh was the No. 1 seed.

And once she’d loosened up enough to execute her full game, she had it. Whenever the Canadian changed the pace with a slice, or a high ball, or a combination of both, Savinykh was the one who missed.

Even a bathroom break by Savinykh after dropping the second set couldn’t halt Zhao’s momentum.

She told Open Court afterwards that it was almost a carbon copy of their match in Ecuador.

It was after 11 p.m. when she finally got off the court, and there were more than a half-dozen matches still going on as the full effects of having lights on all the courts at Roland Garros was on display.

The neighbours must have been thrilled, as they returned from their long weekend. In the end, two fo the 64 matches were suspended around 12:30 a.m.

Schnur bows out against Marchenko

Earlier in the day, Zhao’s fellow Ontario Brayden Schnur suffered a different fate.

The 25-year-old from Pickering, who broke into the top 100 less than two years ago, is at No. 224 and struggling to win matches.

And that lack of confidence was the biggest reason for the 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4 loss to Marchenko, a 33-year-old Ukrainian ranked in the top 50 back in 2016.

Schnur was broken serving for the first set at 5-3 in the first set, although he did pull it out in the tiebreak.

He served for the match in the second set – and not only was he broken, he lost three straight games to lose the set.

Schnur was up a break in the third set, too, only to falter again.

Confidence is everything

With new coach Raheel Manji in the house, Schnur was really playing good ball. Every shot looks improved over a few years ago. His defence is better, his serve appears to have more pop, and his backhand is a lot steadier with gusts to weapon territory.

He was 33-for-52 at the net. He even serve-volleyed well to break up the rhythm.

On Monday, he outplayed Marchenko by a not-insignificant margin.

But when you lack confidence – as is clearly the case after a tough few months – these are the matches you lose.

He saved 16 of 22 break points, coming up with the goods when he was in a hole. But when he was ahead, that’s when he faltered.

A tough loss to take.

Polansky also out in Round 1

As for Peter Polansky, once the king of the lucky losers at major tournaments but really struggling at the moment, it was another first-round exit.

Polansky had to wait until the last few days for some withdrawals before he even got into the qualifying. And as with Schnur (with whom he’s played doubles a fair bit this year as they’ve found themselves at the same Challengers), confidence is at a low ebb.

No. 25 seed Nikola Milojevic of Serbia took him out 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-2, in a match that was on and off court several times because of the rain.

The only other happy story on Monday was Steven Diez, who was first up against alternate Eliot Benchetrit of Morocco (until last year, he was Eliot Benchetrit of France) and easily defeated him 6-3, 6-1.

It was a tough one for Benchetrit, who would have known earlier he was straight into the qualifying had a few withdrawals pulled out a little earlier. As it was, he had to be on standby late Sunday and early Monday morning.

In the end, Diez’s original opponent. No. 6 seed Yasutaka Uchiyama, pulled out late and Benchetrit was in.

Tuesday features Marino, Tabilo

There are two more Canadians to play on Tuesday, to close out the first round.

Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino is up against No. 20 seed Claire Liu of the U.S. – not an easy task, but not an impossible one.

And Alejandro Tabilo, a Toronto native who was once one of Canada’s top juniors but now represents his parents’ native Chile, will meet Australia’s Matthew Ebden.

That, too, is a winnable match.

Diez will play Joao Menezes of Brazil, another unseeded player, in the second round.

Zhao will face No. 23 seed VIktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia.

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