Women’s tennis had an undisputed leader in the early parts of the year as Ashleigh Barty stormed her way to the Australian Open title. But as we head towards the second Grand Slam of the year – the French Open in Paris – Barty is not on the circuit anymore and the mantle has passed to Iga Swiatek.

The world No 1 from Poland won her first title at Roland Garros in 2020 as an outsider but is the firm favourite this time around, coming in on the back of a sensational 28-match unbeaten run. While Barty’s shock retirement was a jolt to those who follow the game, Swiatek’s rise to the top has been swift.

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The 20-year-old’s last defeat came against former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko in Dubai in February. Since Serena Williams won 34 matches in a row in 2013, no player has had a winning streak as long as Swiatek.

“I’m aware that this streak is something that may be coming to an end soon, so I don’t want to be like heartbroken when it’s going to happen,” said 2020 champion Swiatek, showing a sense of mental readiness to handle the pressure.

“I think being aware of that is pretty healthy. I haven’t played a Grand Slam since the streak started. So I guess we’re going to see if everything I have been doing before is going to be enough.”

Swiatek has already won a staggering four WTA 1000 titles this year, becoming only the second player to do so in one season. Her latest triumph came at the Italian Open last week, where she served up another buffet of bagels and breadsticks.

Before the clay swing, Swiatek was in imperious form on the hard courts too, claiming the Doha title before completing the elusive Sunshine Double by winning Indian Wells and Miami. She backed that up transitioning to clay seamlessly and winning the Stuttgart Open, before opting out of the Madrid Open to rest and then returning to win in Rome.

“The world has changed, for sure,” she said. “I feel like with my new ranking, people around are treating me a little bit differently. But I feel like I’m staying the same player and the same person.”

Swiatek’s own form isn’t the only reason why she’s in pole position to win the French Open. The rest of the field doesn’t have enough in-form players either.

In the women’s event, unlike the men’s where Rafael Nadal has won 13 of the past 17 editions, there has been a first-time singles champion in each of the past six years. In 2021, it was Barbora Krejcikova who completed a stunning run and became first player to win both the singles and doubles at Roland Garros since Mary Pierce in 2000. The task facing her is arduous, even historically speaking as the French Open women’s singles title has not been successfully defended since Justine Henin did so in 2006 and 2007. In addition, the Czech world No 2 hasn’t played any match on clay this year after being sidelined by arm injury since late February.

Ons Jabeur is, perhaps, the biggest threat to Swiatek heading into this year’s French Open. The sixth seed from Tunisia bagged the Madrid Open title recently to become the first Arab or African player to claim a WTA 1000 title. The 27-year-old, who won the French Open juniors title in 2011, has been consistent on clay this season – reaching the finals in Charleston and Rome too where she lost to Belinda Bencic and Swiatek respectively.

“I always said it from the beginning of the season that three things: I want to be Top 5, I want to win more titles, and I want to win a Grand Slam,” Jabeur said.

“I’m getting there in all those three. But I don’t want to put the bad pressure on myself that I have to do it this year, otherwise it’s going to be never. But I always believe that I can win a Grand Slam, and I feel like this season could be the right one, hopefully.”

Another player to keen an eye for is, of course, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka. The 24-year-old has an enviable record on hard courts, but her best finish at Roland Garros came in 2016, ‘18 and ‘19 when she reached the third round. In 2021, she had an emotional exit from the tournament after her bitter media boycott.


Meanwhile, the French Open runner-up from 2021 – Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – has called off the remaining of her season due to a knee injury. Paula Badosa, ranked No 3 in the world, had made her way to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year but hasn’t been in great form in recent times. The 24-year-old Spaniard went down in the third round in Rome and in the second round in Madrid.

Anett Kontaveit is seeded fifth, having won four tournaments inside three months last season to qualify for the WTA Finals for the first time in her career. The 26-year-old won her sixth WTA title at the St. Petersburg Open in February this year, but she has only once previously competed at Roland Garros – bowing out in the round of 16 in 2018.

Maria Sakakari, who came within one point of beating Krejcikova in the semifinals last year and becoming the first Greek woman to play in a Grand Slam final, is the fourth seed this time around and will be hoping to build another solid run.

Seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka reached the Italian Open semifinal, losing to Swiatek in a one-sided match, but has improved steadily after struggling at the start of the year.

Osaka skipped Wimbledon last year, revealing she battled with depression and anxiety, but returned for the Tokyo Olympics and lit the Olympic cauldron. In the first round at Roland Garros this year, she will face 2019 semi-finalist Amanda Anisimova who ended her Australian Open defence in the third round earlier this year.

“I’m not going to lie. Like when I first came here, I was very worried,” Osaka said during the official French Open press day on Friday. “I was just kind of worried that there were people that I offended some way and I would just kind of bump into them. Of course I also didn’t like how I handled the situation.”

All in all, the first Major in Barty’s absence, is brimming with possibilities but the new leader of the pack starts the heavy favourite. Often though, in recent times at Roland Garros for the women’s singles title, it has meant little over two weeks. When she herself won the title in 2020, ranked 54, Swiatek became then the second unseeded women’s singles champion in Roland-Garros history, and the lowest-ranked winner since the rankings were introduced in 1975. As the undisputed No 1 currently, to buck that very trend will be Swiatek’s big challenge.

With AFP inputs