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Kei Nishikori off to winning start at French Open

Kyodo, AP

Kei Nishikori advanced to the second round of the French Open for the fourth straight year on Sunday, beating France’s Maxime Janvier in straight sets.

The 19th-seeded Nishikori defeated the French wild-card 7-6 (7-0), 6-4, 6-3. Japan’s world No. 21 struggled with the serves and shots of his 304th-ranked opponent, but claimed the first set after scoring seven consecutive points in the tiebreak.

The big news of the day came on the women’s side, where both defending champion Jelena Ostapenko and seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams were both eliminated in the first round.

Nishikori found his rhythm in the second set, when he broke the first game with three return aces. He saved 10 break points throughout the match, which lasted 2 hours and 19 minutes.

“My opponent was really good. The quality of his performance was beyond his world ranking,” Nishikori said. “Winning the match in three sets means a lot to me. I didn’t allow a single break point and I concentrated well during important moments of the match.”

The 28-year-old Japanese was playing in his first Grand Slam event since competing at Wimbledon last July. He missed two tournaments after being sidelined with a season-ending injury sustained in August.

“My biggest motivation is just being here,” Nishikori said. “I was nervous at first. But I told myself I need to enjoy playing here during the third set, and it made me feel better.”

The former world No. 4 came back to competition in late January and is making his way up the ladder again, having won three of his four matches against players ranked fifth or higher.

“When I returned to competition, I wasn’t confident in my performance even when I played against players ranked 100 or so,” he said. “But I have a stronger desire to win compared to before.”

Among other Japanese, Yoshihito Nishioka made a first-round exit after losing 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 7-5 to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco in a marathon match lasting 4 hours and 23 minutes.

All seeded men in action won, including No. 2 Alexander Zverev and No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov, who eliminated Mohamed Safwat, the seventh “lucky loser” to make it into the draw and the first man from Egypt to play in a Grand Slam tournament in 22 years.

For the women, there is already is certain to be at least one first-time French Open finalist, because 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani joined Ostapenko and Williams on the way out of the bottom half of the draw.

Errani lost to 32nd-seeded Alize Cornet of France 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, while Schiavone was beaten by Viktoria Kuzmova 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2). Also out of that half of the draw is No. 22 Johanna Konta of Britain, a 6-4, 6-3 loser against Yulia Putintseva.

Ostapenko’s high-risk game produced far fewer rewards than problems, as she racked up 48 unforced errors against only 22 winners in bowing out to 67th-ranked Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine 7-5, 6-3 at Court Philippe Chatrier.

Ostapenko is only the second reigning women’s champion to exit in the first round of the French Open a year later — it also happened to 2005 winner Anastasia Myskina — and only the sixth at any major tournament in the professional era.

“Terrible day at the office today for me. I mean, in general, I played maybe, like, 20 percent of what I can play. Made like 50 unforced errors and so many double-faults. Like, couldn’t serve today,” Ostapenko said. “I had this unbelievable pressure. I felt that I’m not myself.”

Over at Court Suzanne Lenglen, things went similarly for Williams, who had 21 more unforced errors than her opponent in a 6-4, 7-5 loss to 85th-ranked Wang Qiang of China.

Williams’ loss follows an equally abrupt exit for the 37-year-old American at the Australian Open in January.

The ninth-seeded Williams offered mostly terse answers in her news conference.

“I mean,” she said, “nobody plans on this.”

As for whether there were things she thought she could have tried to do differently Sunday, she replied: “Yeah, I think ‘differently’ is win the point.”

Williams built a 3-0 lead in the second set, then frittered that away. Over and over, she would shank a shot — backhands, more than anything. Her often-terrific serve was not on target either, with only 56 percent of first serves landing in and four double-faults.

Over the course of 100 minutes on a muggy afternoon, Williams offered up 12 break points, four of which Wang converted. Williams made 16 of the match’s first 25 unforced groundstroke errors. She finished with 35 unforced errors in all, 21 more than Wang.

“I just wanted to play no mistakes — not too many mistakes — and if I get a chance (at a winner), I just go for it,” said Wang, who entered the day with only six victories in 20 previous Grand Slam matches.