By Nick Zaccardi
PARIS — A red-clay-stained Jamie Hampton capped the most successful French Open first round for Americans in a decade, beating No. 25 Lucie Safarova 7-6 (5), 3-6, 9-7 in the last women’s opening-round match Wednesday.
Hampton, 23, notched her first career French Open win in a style befitting the scoreline. Gritty, gutty, gallant.
“I just tried to stay together, rely on my fitness and keep fighting,” she told ESPN’s Pam Shriver after the match on a chilly Court 8, a “non-TV court” with about as many bleachers as your local YMCA gym. “It was such a battle.”
Take your pick of clichéd adjectives, but Hampton will take something else away from the match — a white top brushed with dirt along her scrutinized lower back from when she tripped over herself early in the second set.
“I’ve got some [clay] in my knee to take back to the States with me,” she said.
You could forgive the clumsiness. Hampton, the rare Auburn, Ala., native by way of Frankfurt, Germany, fought (another descriptor du jour) from an early break down and a 3-0 tiebreaker deficit to win the first set against the Czech Safarova, who reached the Australian Open quarterfinals this year but has never made it past the second round in Paris.
Hampton is among 10 U.S. women who won their openers, leading a gaggle knocking on the door of the top 50. (Four American men also made the second round.) She’s ranked a career-high No. 54 after making the semifinals of Brussels last week, where she knocked off No. 15 Roberta Vinci.
She could already be in the top 50 if not for a balky back. It forced her to retire from her first French Open match when she was leading Arantxa Rus in the first round last year. It acted up again at this year’s Australian Open in the most memorable match of her career. In the third round, Hampton pushed eventual champion Victoria Azarenka to three sets despite the problematic back. She lost 6–4, 4–6, 6–2 and was one of two players to go the distance with Azarenka in Melbourne (the other was Li Na in the final).
“It gives me a lot of confidence to know that I can compete with the best in the world,” Hampton said. “I didn’t come out on top, but I was right there.”
Hampton’s prospects for an extended stay in Paris are promising. She’s put the back issues, um, behind her, and played the longest third set of her career, notable because she’s also dealt with cramping.
“I need a lot of salt,” she said.
Next up is copy-and-paste Slovakian qualifier Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. If she wins, her likely third-round opponent is No. 7 Petra Kvitova, whose trademark inconsistency is multiplied on clay.
Hampton said her goal is to make the top 30 by the end of the year so she can be a Grand Slam seed. That would put her into the discussion of best non-Williams American.
“I’m a little bit older, 23, and Sloane [Stephens], Madison [Keys] and Lauren [Davis] are teens, early 20s, but I’m a young pro,” said Hampton, who started tennis at 8, turned pro at 19 and says she’s often called “Julie Hamilton.” “Everything’s come a little bit later for me.”