Even the biggest stars of tennis feel nerves before first-round matches at Wimbledon and other Slams

Tennis players insist that initial matches at one of their sport’s four most prestigious events — the Australian Open in January, the French Open in May, Wimbledon in late June or early July, and the U.S. Open in August — give them reason to worry, no matter how many times they’ve won at that stage

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LONDON (AP) — Carlos Alcaraz already owns three Grand Slam titles, including from Wimbledon a year ago, and yet he spoke after his opening victory at this year's edition of the tournament about feeling nervous before setting foot on Centre Court, despite going up against a player who never before had played at any major tournament.

Coco Gauff, the reigning U.S. Open champion and a French Open runner-up two years ago, said after her win in the same stadium that, sure, she's played "on a lot of big courts," but each time she competes on that particular patch of grass, "It's the most nervous I ever feel playing tennis — even more than playing a Grand Slam final."

Why would such accomplished athletes still get the jitters? Especially in the first round, which was scheduled to wrap up Tuesday at the All England Club, and in what should, in theory, be their easiest contests over what they hope will be a two-week stay in the bracket? Turns out that tennis players, almost uniformly, insist that initial matches at one of their sport's four most prestigious events — the Australian Open in January, the French Open in May, Wimbledon in late June or early July, and the U.S. Open in August — give them reason to worry, no matter how many times they've won at that stage.

And Marketa Vondrousova showed precisely why on Tuesday: She became the first defending women's champion at Wimbledon to lose in the first round the following year, eliminated 6-4, 6-2 by 83rd-ranked Jessica Bouzas Maneiro, someone who never had won a Grand Slam match.

Afterward, Vondrousova acknowledged being “nervous from the start.”

Happens a lot, it seems.

“I would lie if I would say I’m not nervous, because everybody is, I think. There is a lot of pressure, especially when you play well and you already know that you can achieve this step; people are expecting it to happen again and again and again,” said Iga Swiatek, who just won her fifth major championship at the French Open and is seeded No. 1 at Wimbledon. "You need that stress to get you on the right level of motivation and readiness.”

That stress, though, tends to dissipate over the course of the tournament, which is counterintuitive, given that opponents should be getting tougher and the stakes growing greater as the days go by.

“I always feel a lot more nervous during the first round of Slams, just because I want to do well so badly, and the first round is the first round, so you kind of almost feel like the tournament didn’t even start and you’re out if you lose,” four-time major champion Naomi Osaka said. “That’s, for me, what I feel. Growing up, the Slams were the tournaments that I watched on TV the most. I just want to be here for as long as I can.”

That sense that these events mean more than others has only been heightened in recent years.

Wimbledon and the other majors get the most attention in the sport, without a doubt, both from TV broadcasters and viewers, sponsors and spectators. Players are well aware of that, and some, such as Novak Djokovic, make clear that they know accumulating those particular trophies make all the difference.

He has 24 of them. And the folks seeking their first tend to feel the same way.

“Every match, you want to win. But Slams can change your life, your legacy. This is where it really counts,” said Frances Tiafoe, who is seeded 29th at Wimbledon and dropped the first two sets on Monday against Matteo Arnaldi before coming all the way back to win. “First round is always tough, whether you're feeling good going in. Or not feeling good. Or in-between. You just want to get through that first round and then you settle in.”

Fifth-seeded Jessica Pegula has reached the quarterfinals at majors six times, including at Wimbledon in 2023, and had a much easier time than Tiafoe in the first round, needing all of 49 minutes to get past Ashlyn Krueger 6-2, 6-0 on Tuesday.

But Pegula was not looking forward to that match. Not at all.

“First rounds suck. There’s a lot of anxiety. There’s this buildup. Everyone wants to win a Grand Slam. You’re thinking, ‘This is the one.’ You want to do the best you can to prep. There’s more media. And you have no base of where anything is. How the courts are truly playing. All those little things kind of go into it. It’s hectic,” Pegula said. “Once the first match gets out of the way, everyone takes a deep breath and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m good now.’ You know what to expect. But in the first round, you don’t have that. And you don’t want to go home the first day.”

Part of what can get into the heads of higher-ranked players is the notion that not only are they hoping to through the first round, but everyone else is expecting that outcome, too.

Essentially, it's this thought: What will the world think if I lose this match?

“If there’s not that much expectation on you, no one’s really going to think twice if you lose in the first round,” said Taylor Fritz, the No. 13 seed. “Going out in the first round, you're thinking how it would be the worst thing ever. It’s a weird thing. It comes and goes. I've had times where I've been so nervous for the first round, and then I've had times where I'm not nervous at all. When you're feeling confident, as soon as you step on that court, if you feel good for the first couple of games, it all goes away. But if you come out a little tight, and things aren’t going your way, it’s not great.”

Alcaraz tries to shake off his nerves by trying “to disconnect,” he said, and not focus too much on the task at hand in the hours prior to a match. A day before facing — and defeating — 269th-ranked qualifier Mark Lajal of Estonia at Wimbledon, Alcaraz played a round of golf to try relax.

“It's something that helps me a lot to turn off my mind a little bit, not to think about the match the day before,” Alcaraz said. “Helps me a lot to stay calm.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP's tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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