By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) - The sun beat down from a cloudless Parisian sky on Sunday as the French Open began with a sultry Venus Williams raising the on-court temperature and French favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga almost getting caught cold.
Williams, wearing a black and red frilly outfit that was more nightdress than tennis attire, jump-started the women's draw with a 6-3 6-3 defeat of wily Swiss Patty Schnyder -- her tennis as eye-catching as her choice of clothing.
Tsonga, France's highest-ranked male player and the eighth seed here, nearly ruined an idyllic day for home fans when he was pushed to the brink by little known German Daniel Brands before emerging victorious in five sets.
Roland Garros fortnight is one of the highlights of the French sporting calendar and hordes of spectators snaked down the leafy Rue D'Auteuil from early morning.
The wine corks were already popping in the chic bars sprinkled across this leafy quadrant of Parisian real estate as women's defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova opened the action on Philippe Chatrier Court.
The Russian sixth seed, woefully short of form in the run-up the second major of the season, seemed to be lulled into the jovial atmosphere as she went 3-0 down against Romania's Sorana Cirstea but she roused herself in time to avoid the humiliation of a pre-lunchtime exit, winning 6-3 6-1.
"I knew this moment had to pass because I deserve better than that, and I worked harder than these results. I was just concerned about when it was going to pass," Kuznetsova, who had managed just one claycourt win this season, told reporters.
The French Open's Sunday start is unique among the grand slams but a lightweight Day One schedule with no Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal in the mix had the feel of a light entree before the beefy action to come over the next fortnight.
There was plenty on the menu but those opting for an extra glass of wine would have missed French wildcard Laurent Recouderc's predictable demolition by last year's men's runner-up Robin Soderling.
The Swede's brutal forehand, which bludgeoned Nadal to a first ever Roland Garros defeat last year, was far too hot for the 25-year-old journeyman who lost the first nine games before eeking a modicum of self-respect in a 6-0 6-2 6-3 loss.
Soderling, the fifth seed, walloped 46 winners, many of them threatening to wreak havoc with the beautifully-arranged geraniums lining the rectangle of sun-blasted red clay.
"It's always nice to have a quick match in the early rounds. I got to hit a few balls. We had a few rallies, so it was a good match," the quietly spoken Swede, whose sensational run last year was ended by Federer in the final, told reporters.
There was better news for French hopes in the match that followed when Aravane Rezai, a close second to Venus in the fashion stakes with a gold-flanked dress, crushed Canada's Heidi El Tabakh 6-1 6-1 to underline her credentials.
Seven-times grand slam winner Venus, whose best effort here was losing to her sister Serena in the 2002 final, looked in fine fettle against Schnyder, a player she had beaten in all 10 of their previous meetings.
Inevitably, she was asked to describe her latest outfit, which also featured skin colored underwear.
"The outfit was about illusion, and that's been a lot my motif this year, illusion," Venus, who turns 30 next month, dreamily told reporters.
Tsonga's hopes of becoming France's first men's French Open champion since Yannick Noah in 1983 also looked an illusion as he labored against the 89th-ranked Brands.
After dropping the first set, Tsonga seemed to have the match in his pocket when he won the next two but a poor fourth-set tiebreak took it to a decider.
After dropping serve early on he hit back and with the home crowd roaring him on in the evening sunshine he survived to win 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-7 7-5.
A few seeds are already packing their bags though, most notably Victoria Azarenka, the women's 10th seed from Belarus, who crumbled against Argentina's Gisela Dulko, winning just three games.
In the men's draw Latvian dark horse Ernests Gulbis, the 23rd seed, damaged a hamstring while doing the splits against Frenchman Julien Benneteau and retired at two sets down.
There were no such worries for Croatia's Marin Cilic, the 10th seed, who beat Brazil's Ricardo Mello 6-1 3-6 6-3 6-1.
(Editing by Miles Evans)