The clay at Roland Garros is red, grass is green, and the women’s singles field at the second Grand Slam of the year is open. Some things go without saying.
The last six Majors have been won by six different women and the defending champion at French Open is someone who had lifted her first tennis title as an unseeded player last year. Most of the top seeds, and some even not seeded, have the game to lift the trophy so it is practically impossible to predict a winner, or even the last four.
If the men’s preview was all about the runaway favourite Rafael Nadal and if any contender can challenge him, the women’s preview is about the many, many contenders in the mix.
Usually in such cases one would look at the most consistent performers on clay this season, the top seed and the player who had won the first Slam of the year perhaps. But women’s tennis doesn’t work like that.
The big clay-court tournaments – Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome – were won by three different players, Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina. The top two seeds are Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki and the defending champion is fifth seed Jelena Ostapenko. Additionally, former champions Maria Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza are in the mix as well and the best player in the fray is actually actually unseeded, as Serena Williams returns to Grand Slam tennis.
The best winning rate on clay belongs to Elise Mertens, who has lost only one of the 14 matches she has played, while the best top-10 player on clay this season has been Kvitova with 86% and two titles.
To add more nostalgia, this will be the first time that Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova and Serena will be in a Grand Slam together since the 2016 Australian Open.
With so many variables to factor in, here’s a look at the numbers and form guide of the women who could emerge champions two weeks from now.
Ostapenko’s title defence
A year after she became the first unseeded woman to lift the trophy since 1933 as a 20-year-old, Ostapenko comes in to Roland Garros as the fifth seed and the pressure of defending a Grand Slam. However, the big-shotmaker’s form on clay this season has not been the best with a win-rate of 62%.
She lost at the Stuttgart quarter-finals in a close three-setter to eventual champion Karolina Pliskova and crashed out in the opening round to Irina-Camelia Begu in Madrid. She was much better in Madrid, but went down to a rejuvenated Sharapova in a tough quarter-final.
However, she has continued establishing herself as a top-10 player in the last year, reaching the WTA Finals Singapore and finishing as the runner-up at Miami, showing the consistency Slam champions need is very much there.
If she can channelize the spirit that gave her the first title, coupled with her aggressive game, she could make a deep run at Roland Garros again.
Halep’s overdue first Major
Halep is the top seed at French Open.
Halep has never won a Grand Slam.
Halep has been a two-time runner up at Roland Garros.
Halep lost yet another big final in Rome last week.
The Romanian world No 1 has had the strangest of luck at Majors, never winning any despite her remarkable consistency. Last year, she blew a 3-1 lead in the deciding set and at the first Slam in Australia this year, she similarly ran out of gas in the final.
However, clay is one of her best surfaces and despite everything, the French Open is indeed the best chance for her to break the Grand Slam jinx. She is a dogged athlete and has a win rate of 75% on clay this year. More importantly, she has the best return of serve rate, breaking her opponent almost 50% of times. It is these numbers that make her legitimate threat at Roland Garros.
While she lost in quarterfinals at Stuttgart and Madrid and went down in another final, but she has done enough in Rome to carry good momentum to Paris.
Will fourth time be the charm for her?
Kvitova’s dream run
A year ago, Kvitova made her return to tennis at Roland Garros after a burglar attacked her with a knife to leave her with practically severed fingers. A year later, she enters French Open as the eighth seed and one of the favuorites to lift the title with a stunning run on clay. For this incredible storyline alone, one would want the Czech to win her third Major.
But the two-time Wimbledon winner has more than made her case with her form this year. She enters the Slam on an 11-match win streak, having won four titles this year, with two of them being on clay. In fact, Kvitova is 13-1 on red clay in 2018. She has also won 40% of her return games on clay this season.
While she has not played since her title-run Madrid – withdrawing from Rome citing exhaustion – and hasn’t reached the quarter-finals in Paris since 2012, her recent form on clay makes her more than capable of making a deep run.
Svitolina, Pliskova primed for Grand Slam breakthrough
The attacking Svitolina and big-serving Pliskova have both been impressive on clay this season, lifting the two big titles in Rome and Stuttgart respectively. And both have been primed to make good on their potential at the Grand Slam level soon.
Last year, both succumbed to eventual runner-up Halep at Roland Garros. Svitolina, who was coming off a title in Rome, squandered a match point while Pliskova, the second seed, fell in a three-setter.
This year, the Ukrainian fourth seed is coming off another title run in Rome, beating Halep in the final. While she didn’t do much in the two events before, she was unbeatable in the Italian capital and will take that as she aims to make her first semi-final on the red dirt. The Czech, who is drawn to meet Sharapova early, is coming off a meltdown in Rome and will hope to do better than her semi run last year.
If either of them play to their clay-court potential consistently for two weeks, we could have a first-time Grand Slam winner at Roland Garros again.
Sharapova, the dark horse
One year after she was a denied a wildcard for the French Open for returning from a doping ban, Sharapova will enter the Grand Slam as a seeded player. Despite an up-and-down run since her return, the two-time champion has shown that she still has what it takes to play at the highest level.
In the past few weeks, after losing in the first round at Stuttgart, she made the quarter-finals in Madrid and mounted a strong run in Rome before going down to Halep in the semis.
But with the amount of time spent grinding results on clay, Sharapova, with a 70% winning rate this season, looks good for a deep run. But the most important step in that will be the potential last-16 clash with Serena.
The return of Serena
Which brings us to the biggest name in the women’s singles draw: world No 453 Serena Williams.
While her lack of seeding has stirred a lot of debate, the implication of that means she will both face and be a threat every step of the way. The last time she played a Major, she lifted her record 23rd Grand Slam in Australia, while pregnant. Since then, she has given birth, got married, faced a life-threatening illness and returned to the tennis court with mixed success.
The 36-year-old lost to sister Venus and Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells and Miami and an illness prevented her from playing on European clay. But this lack of match practice might not count for much as she aims for her 24th (another record) Grand Slam. Can she overcome all odds, once again, and emerge champion on the red dirt. If anyone can script such an incredible comeback, it is Serena.