PARIS — Easy to understand why Andy Roddick never enjoyed playing on red clay all that much.
First and foremost, the footing is tricky as can be. The soft courts take his booming serves and forehands down a notch, too. Put simply, his game is built for hard or grass courts. As if that weren’t enough, he arrived at this French Open having played only 16 matches in a season interrupted by injuries to his right hamstring and right ankle.
If Roddick was tempted to sit out Roland Garros altogether — or tempted to use his health or rust as an excuse for playing poorly — he did not. The 26th-seeded American, once ranked No. 1 and once a Grand Slam champion, gave it a shot and came up short Sunday, exiting in a major tournament’s opening round for the first time since 2007, and at the same venue.
His 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 loss to 88th-ranked Nicolas Mahut at the French Open dropped Roddick’s record to 7-10 this season, 0-4 on clay. Of the seven previous major title winners in action on Day 1 in Paris, including Venus Williams in her first Grand Slam match since revealing in August she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, only Roddick was beaten.
“Wasn’t playing really well. I move just horrendously out here. My first step is just so bad on this stuff,” Roddick said. “I feel like I’m always shuffling or hopping or not stopping or something.”
Like Roddick, and for much the same reasons, Williams is not nearly as comfortable on clay as faster surfaces.
She’s also dealing with the difficult process of learning to live with Sjogren’s syndrome, a condition that can cause fatigue and joint pain. But the 31-year-old Williams, a seven-time major champion, overcame a slow start Sunday to beat 19-year-old Paula Ormaechea of Argentina 4-6, 6-1, 6-3.
“A lot of it, I have to figure it out. It’s physical and emotional and all kinds of different things. Mental,” Williams said of her medical condition. “It’s a big accomplishment for me to be here right now.”
She looked glum on court, not even smiling after most of her 41 winners (Ormaechea only had 15). But she laughed frequently during her news conference, such as when she talked about what she’s been going through as “definitely an adventure and journey; it’s life happening.”
The other past major champions who won Sunday were Juan Martin del Potro, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Sam Stosur, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Monday’s schedule includes Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na.
Mahut hit more aces than Roddick, 13-8, and broke him seven times, including in the last game on Court Suzanne Lenglen, an arena the American is not fond of.
Roddick only once made it as far as the fourth round in 10 trips to Roland Garros, in 2009. He’s lost in the first round five times now. And there’s a reason the guy never saw success at the French Open the way he did at the U.S. Open (champion), Wimbledon (runner-up three times) or Australian Open (semifinalist four times).
“I just feel like I get exposed too easily out here. I feel like I’m not set on most shots. If you’re not set, it’s tough to get much of a flow going. When you don’t have much of a flow going, it lends itself to sporadic play. It all adds up,” Roddick said. “You can’t fake it out here. … It’s tough to lie out here.”
Back on tour last week after two months away, Roddick was asked a handful of times about his physical state and recovery.
“I’m going to not discuss it. I made a choice. I played. I’m fine. I lost,” he said, his expression downcast under a blue baseball hat bearing the logo of his French sponsor.
“Not being confident on something isn’t the same as just not being bothered with it. You know, as athletes, we’re preconditioned to hope sometimes. Coming into this, I didn’t have much to kind of prop myself up on,” Roddick said. “But, you know, I played a guy who it’s not his favorite surface either, so there was a chance. You just don’t know. If everyone pulled out of every tournament when they weren’t feeling great or confident, we wouldn’t have a lot of fields that were much to write home about. We’d have about four people in most draws.”
Mahut lost in the first round eight times in nine previous appearances in Paris. He is best known for losing the longest match in tennis history to John Isner, 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon in the first round in 2010.
Mahut acknowledged the 29-year-old man he faced Sunday “was not the No. 1 Roddick, the No. 1 player in the world that we know.”
Still, Roddick did make a bit of a stand, hitting a backhand passing winner down the line to take the third set, then breaking Mahut to open the fourth.
“Then,” Roddick would lament, “it fell apart pretty quick.”
Now it’s on to a happier segment of the season.
“There are a lot of guys who know how to play on clay, and it’s just second nature to them,” Roddick said. “I feel that way on grass, so hopefully I can turn it around there.”
He’ll play next at Queen’s Club, which starts in London on June 11, then Wimbledon.
After that, he wants to play at the Olympics, which will have tennis on the grass of the All England Club.
And what about his supposed plan to play mixed doubles at the London Games with Serena Williams?
“Ask her. I can’t get ahold of her,” Roddick replied. “If you see her, ask her for me.”