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Serena wins first French Open night match

Serena Williams’ French Open post-match press conference was more focused on the tournament withdrawal of Naomi Osaka than the American’s victory in the first ever scheduled night session at Roland Garros.

Williams saved two set points before going on to beat Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6 (8-6) 6-2 on Monday to advance to the second round.

Afterwards Williams offered her support to Osaka, who had sensationally pulled out of the clay-court slam in the wake of her decision to boycott obligatory press conferences.

In a statement, four-time grand slam champion Osaka said she did not want her stance to become a distraction and that she’d been dealing with mental health issues since winning a tumultuous 2018 US Open final against Williams.

On court just hours after Osaka’s announcement, Williams was inevitably asked for her reaction and said she could relate to her fellow professional’s concerns.

“Many of them I’ve been into where I’ve been – very difficult to walk in in those moments,” she said.

“But you know, it made me stronger.”

Last week Osaka said she would not participate in the standard post-match news conferences during Roland Garros, citing her decision as a mental health matter because media questions can create self-doubt.

“I feel for Naomi,” Williams said. “Not everyone is the same … Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.”

Few athletes have been under the media spotlight like Williams, who is still chasing a record-tying 24th grand slam singles title – with her most recent major victory coming in 2017.

When the glare becomes too intense, she said, it’s important to reach out for support.

“You really have to step forward and make an effort, just as in anything, and say, ‘I need help with A, B, C and D,’ and talk to someone.” Williams said.

“I’ve been in that position too, and I’ve definitely had opportunities to talk to people and just get things off my chest that I can’t necessarily talk about to anyone in my family or anyone I know.”

Organisers introduced night matches under the Philippe Chatrier Court lights this year to provide some late-night drama for the fans – emulating the US Open and Australian Open – but the historic match was played in an empty stadium because of a COVID-19 curfew of 9pm in Paris.

The flat atmosphere hardly helped the 39-year-old three-time French Open champion, who squandered a 5-2 lead in the first set against her tricky Romanian opponent.

Begu then led 6-4 and Williams got lucky with a return that clipped the tape, before rattling off four points to win the opener with a drive volley – producing a roar that echoed around the empty stands.

“It was pretty cool to be able to play the first night session ever here at Roland Garros. That was something I thoroughly enjoyed,” said Williams, who will face another Romanian in round two in 174th-ranked Mihaela Buzarnescu.

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