Katie Boulter sent a ripple of bemusement through Roland Garros on Friday without hitting a ball, when she revealed the day after leaving her name in the draw that she was withdrawing from the tournament to rest her injured back.
The British No 3 and world No 112 will collect about £20,000 – half the first-round prize money – even though she indicated nearly three weeks ago that the injury she exacerbated in helping Great Britain beat Kazakhstan in the Federation Cup in London last month was not healing quickly enough for her to be fit for the French Open.
She has handled the situation clumsily, at best, although she could argue she has earned the right to settle on her intentions at the last minute because of her improved form this season. As she says on Twitter, she is, “travelling the world to hit a fluffy yellow thing”. It is her living.
Her late withdrawal, however, has cost the Swiss player Stefanie Vöegele a place in the tournament and a guaranteed loser’s fee of about £40,000. Vöegele lost in the first round of qualifying but, because of her ranking, was at the head of the queue as a replacement. Instead the spot goes to the Italian-Russian qualifier Ludmilla Samsonova. That is the lottery of modern tennis.
After working out in Roehampton on Thursday Boulter came here on Friday and, either through embarrassment or expediency, chose to reserve her views for social media rather than endure the scrutiny of a press conference.
“So disappointed to have to pull out of the French Open,” she tweeted. “I was still hoping to have a chance of competing but doctors have advised me not to take a risk with my back. Can’t wait to get back on court soon.”
Rushing past waiting journalists, she scooted off to watch Katie Swan soldier through to the end of qualifying but her Fed Cup teammate could not reach the final backhand winner down the line from the Slovakian Kristina Kucova, who won 6-4, 7-5 after an hour and 39 minutes in the third and last round. Swan, for her week’s work, earned about £1,000 more than Boulter.
All of which leaves Johanna Konta as Britain’s sole representative in the women’s tournament where, if she can overcome the Parisian blues that have struck in the first round four times in a row, she is scheduled for a rematch in the final 32 with the fourth seed, Kiki Bertens, whom she beat to reach the Rome final last weekend, when she lost to the world No 2 Karolina Pliskova. Konta has the luxury of a qualifier in the first round.
Outsiders, though, have given her serial grief at Roland Garros since 2015, when opponents with a combined ranking of 350 stopped her reaching the second round. Still, her recent clay form has been a revelation. In an open field the world No 26 could surprise a few people.
Simona Halep, who defends her title with a third seeding that puts her in the same quarter as Petra Kvitova, is geared up for a solid first-round test against the Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, who put a 129mph serve on the Romanian when losing in three competitive sets in Cincinnati last year.
“It’s going to be different because it’s clay court,” the champion said of that win on a hard court, “but still, it’s going to be a very tough match. She’s powerful. She hits the ball strong.”
Halep, whose motivation and moods have oscillated in the past, split with her Australian coach, Darren Cahill, late last year and seems far more settled and mature. “I play tennis because I love playing tennis,” she said, “and I’m here because I love the life of an athlete. I like to make friends. I like to spend time with people. Now I see things differently, so I discover a different life on tour.”
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Naomi Osaka, too, has been looking for contentment since winning two majors on the spin, in New York and Melbourne, and has not given off the same relaxed aura since. The world No 1, who begins her quest for a hat-trick of slams with what should be a win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, said on Friday: “Definitely, I feel like I should be an all-court player. Honestly, it’s been a bit of a ride trying to figure out how to play better on clay throughout these years. But I think this year I have been playing well.”
She is still comfortingly guileless, observing: “I haven’t won Wimbledon yet either. It would be really cool to win everything in one year.”