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Tennis-Djokovic, Alcaraz cruise at French Open as Stephens lays down marker

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By Julien Pretot and Shrivathsa Sridhar

PARIS (Reuters) -Novak Djokovic launched his quest for a record-breaking 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title with a no-nonsense 6-3 6-2 7-6 (1) win over debutant Aleksandar Kovacevic in the opening round of the French Open on Monday.

World number one Carlos Alcaraz also came through with flying colours as the Spaniard crushed Italian qualifier Flavio Cobolli 6-0 6-2 7-5 in his first Grand Slam match since winning the U.S. Open title last year.

Twice Roland Garros champion Djokovic breezed through the first two sets before encountering resistance from the 24-year-old American whose lack of experience then showed in the tiebreak on the world’s biggest clay court.

Djokovic ended the contest with a sizzling service return on his first match point and will face Hungarian journeyman Marton Fucsovics for a place in the third round.

“It’s always a pleasure to come back here, one of the best tournaments in the world,” said Djokovic, who made his Roland Garros debut in 2005.

“I’m very motivated to go far here, all the way I hope.”

Djokovic did not have an ideal build-up to the claycourt Grand Slam, missing the Madrid Masters and being eliminated in the last eight in Rome, but he looked in good form in windy conditions.

On court Suzanne Lenglen, Benoit Paire was beaten in five sets by British 14th seed Cameron Norrie. Paire, given a wildcard, was up a break in the decider but could not close out the match.

“I’m happy with all the efforts that I’ve been making for some time. So today it was a great match,” said world number 149 Paire, who has not won in the main draw in a top tier event since August.

Dominic Thiem took his main draw spot after the withdrawal of 14-times champion Rafa Nadal – his conqueror in the 2018 and 2019 finals but the injury-plagued Austrian fell to Argentine Pedro Cachin who won 6-3 6-2 6-7(1) 4-6 6-2.

Italian veteran Fabio Fognini showed he was still a force to be reckoned with as he dismissed ailing 10th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-4 6-3, making the Canadian the first top-10 player in the men’s draw to crash out.

WAWRINKA THROUGH

Stan Wawrinka also made his way into the second round after the 2015 champion beat Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-6(5) 6-4 6-7(2) 1-6 6-4 in an epic battle lasting more than four hours.

Zhang Zhizhen later became the first Chinese man in the Open Era to win a main draw match at the French Open as Dusan Lajovic retired while down 6-1 4-1.

Two former runners-up made quite an impression in the women’s draw.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova celebrated her return to Roland Garros with a dominant win over Czech Linda Fruhvirtova after fearing for her career a year ago due to a knee problem.

The 31-year-old enjoyed her best run at a Grand Slam in the 2021 tournament when she reached he final, and skipped last year’s edition as well as the second half of the season to nurse an injury.

Sloane Stephens, runner-up in 2018, dismantled former world number one Karolina Pliskova 6-0 6-4.

Although everything went smoothly on court for the American, she said racist abuse of players had got worse.

“Yes, it’s obviously been a problem my entire career,” said Stephens, who is Black. “It has never stopped. If anything, it’s only gotten worse.”

Former world number three Elina Svitolina celebrated a winning return to Grand Slam tennis with a 6-2 6-2 victory over Italy’s Martina Trevisan following her one-year maternity break and the Ukrainian quickly waded into a debate over the war in her country.

She said since her return to the tennis tour in April the focus had not been on the suffering of Ukrainians following Russia’s invasion last year.

“What I found is… a lot rubbish is happening around the situation where we have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” Svitolina said when asked what she had been hearing on the tour since her comeback.

Caroline Garcia, who is carrying French hopes for a first Roland Garros singles champion since Mary Pierce in 2000, fought her way into the second round by downing China’s Wang Xiyu 7-6(4) 4-6 6-4.

It was the end of the road for Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, however, as the Swiss player lost 6-3 2-6 6-4 against lucky loser Elina Avanesyan.

(Additional reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar and Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ed Osmond and Toby Davis)

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