No run of form or telling trait can help predict who might actually go on to dominate the ladies singles draw at Roland Garros this year. As 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams takes a maternity break, there doesn’t seem to be a clear contender for the crown.
Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova posed a constant threat to Williams and would have been one of the favourites to win the French Open starting next week, but the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) refused to bow to financial considerations and decided against giving her a wild-card entry, following the 30-year-old Russian’s return from a 15-month doping suspension.
The Russian has become a controversial figure in the women’s game after accepting several wild-card invitations to major events immediately after the ban, which came into force after she tested positive for meldonium, a banned substance, during the 2016 Australian Open. She got wild-card entries to the Stuttgart Open, the Madrid Masters and the Rome Masters, but the Grand Slams have refused to ease her return to the game.
With two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka looking to return after a maternity break when the hard-court season kicks off in July, and Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, on the road to recovery from a knife attack last year, it’s time for the younger challengers to step up to the task.
It has been an unpredictable start to the season. While reigning world No.1 Angelique Kerber of Germany has not won a single title this year, there have been 19 different winners in 24 WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) tournaments so far, including the Australian Open. Seven of them have been first-time title winners and the player with most tournament wins this season is the lesser-known world No.11 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, with three titles.
Kerber reached three Grand Slam finals last year. The tenacious German ran down everything Williams threw at her in the finals of the Australian and US Opens, winning both, but lost the Wimbledon to the American. There were enough reasons to believe that she would own the WTA tour this year but she has had a patchy run and withdrew from the third round of the Madrid tournament with a thigh injury.
Then there is Garbiñe Muguruza, the defending champion at the French Open. Muguruza, arguably, is the only player in the game capable of overpowering Williams’ ground strokes. During the final match at Roland Garros last year, the 23-year-old bludgeoned the ball across the court to Williams in a remarkable display of power and aggression. With a strong serve bolstering her flat-as-they-come ground strokes, the world No.7 became the first Spaniard in the women’s game since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to win a Grand Slam (interestingly, Sanchez-Vicario’s first major title was also the French Open, in 1989, against the most dominant player of that generation—Steffi Graf).
But it has been a rough ride for Muguruza since. Inconsistency has been the key issue but she will have an edge at Roland Garros, given that she knows the surface well and goes in as the defending champion.
Then there is Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian’s was among the louder voices that spoke against Sharapova’s return, and in her Madrid Open round 2 match against the Russian, Bouchard played a massive game to earn the win in three sets. She then went on to beat Kerber in the next round before losing to Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter-finals.
And there is 25-year-old Simona Halep, who won the Madrid Open earlier this month. The 5ft, 6 inches tall Romanian has been in contention for big titles for a while now but hasn’t quite broken into the champions’ circle. Her recent win at the Madrid Masters, however, has given her some momentum. It also helps that she has an excellent clay-court game—just like her idol Justine Henin, a seven-time Grand Slam champion with four French Open titles.
She has speed and anticipation, and the great ability to hit winners from defensive positions—traits that will serve her well on the bouncy red clay. Her best Grand Slam performance was at Roland Garros in 2014, where she lost the final to Sharapova. This time, the Russian will not be there, and even before the FFT announced its decision on Sharapova, Halep was the bookies’ favourite to win the French Open.
Possible challenges may even come from the likes of Caroline Wozniacki or Agnieszka Radwańska, and there’s no discounting the other Williams, Venus.
While Rafael Nadal starts another French Open as a clear favourite in the men’s game, the lines are more blurred in the women’s draw. At the moment, it’s anybody’s game.