French Open | Can Serena derail the French form book?
Simona Halep is the World No 1 and top seed at the 2018 French Open but she has rivals nipping at her heels as she strives to snag her elusive first major.
She has been so close on several occasions and many tip her for the title, believing time has now come the Romanian, but others lurk in the sidelines, all too eager to cause the upset.
Halep leads the 2018 points race on the women’s tour and, at 26, is in the prime of her tennis life at 26.
She has reached three Grand Slam finals, all of which were three-set classics, the first against Maria Sharapova at Roland-Garros in 2014 when she was just too green, and last year when she dominated the final as she went a set up and was a point away from a 4-0 lead in the second against Jelena Ostapenko only to become tentative and was blasted from the court by a torrent of Latvian torpedoes.
Then, earlier this year, in the Australian Open final, she succumbed to Caroline Wozniacki after an epic so gruelling that she ended up in hospital being treated for dehydration.
Halep, however, is resilient and each loss has taught her something important and, although she suffered a bitter defeat to Elina Svitolina in the Rome final last week when she needed the trainer to treat her injured back, she remains upbeat about her chances at Roland-Garros.
And so she should be. In last year’s Italian final, also against Svitolina, Halep suffered an ankle injury during her defeat. Yet a fortnight later, the Romanian still outlasted the Ukrainian even when on the brink of defeat at Roland-Garros.
Maybe Halep is finally believing that she is the legitimate World No 1 for very good reason.
Three finals, two semi-finals and five quarter-finals at Grand Slams since 2014 tell of a player who, like Wozniacki earlier this year, will not be deterred, who will keep battering away until the dam bursts.
This will be Halep’s 32nd Grand Slam and Wozniacki got her first at her 43rd attempt.
Halep opens her account against American Alison Riske in the first round in Paris and will be looking to deflect the notion that she has a tendency to falter when the lights are brightest.
If she can stay true to form and reaches the quarter-finals, Halep should meet the Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, whose path is far from certain since she has the most dangerous of all players in her part of the draw, the ‘unprotected’ Serena Williams.
Controversy surrounds Serena, lurking unseeded in the draw with a ranking of 453 and playing her first Grand Slam since returning from giving birth to her daughter last September.
Denied a seeding for the upcoming French Open, Mary Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam tournament winner herself, has called the WTA to have a re-look at the rule which states that players who are out of the game owing to injury or pregnancy for a minimum of six months are allowed to keep the ranking they held when they went on leave, but the decision to seed them is up to the tournament organisers.
“I think this is where the WTA could possibly have a look and consider using the protected ranking for seeding as well,” said Pierce.
“Serena could now play the No 1 seed of the French Open and that would be like a Grand Slam final in the first round, which is kind of crazy and unfortunate for both players.”
The former Australian and French Open champion felt that while Williams wouldn’t be among the favourites for Roland Garros, she would still be a force to reckon with.
“I think she is not yet back in form, and clay is not her best surface. I would not put her as a favourite but I will expect her to go deep in the tournament, just because she is Serena.
“Some people wonder if she can be the same player she was before. Now, she has become a mom, she has a nurturing side, a softer side.
“Will she be a killer on the court as before? But I have never seen in any other player such a deep burning desire to win every point. I will keep my eyes on her more for Wimbledon.”
In the absence of Williams, women’s tennis hasn’t had a well-defined pecking order, but for Pierce it doesn’t diminish the field.
“Sometimes people like to see a rivalry between two players. But today, there are a handful of girls who come into a tournament and you don’t know who is going to win. So it’s exciting. I don’t see why it is not good for the game.”
Serena’s fate was left to the whims of a randomisation algorithm but she landed in a comfortable part of the with a first-round match against 70th-ranked Kristyna Pliskova, whom she has never played
In the second round, Serena would face either 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty, who has never defeated a top-50 player on clay, or 81st-ranked Natalia Vikhlyantseva.
Among her possible third-round opponents are 11th-seeded Julia Goerges, 36th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova, 46th-ranked Alison Van Uytvanck, or the 248th-ranked wild card Isabelle Wallace, while her fourth-round opponent could be sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the twin sister of her first-round opponent, or Maria Sharapova, whom she has beaten in 18 consecutive matches.
Sharapova has endured a rocky road since coming back from her doping ban a year ago.
Since then, the French Open declined to give her a wildcard, she missed Wimbledon with injury but made the last 16 at both the US Open and this year’s Australian Open.
She failed to win a match, however, between January and May but, after a run to the Rome semi-finals, the 31-year-old Russian arrives in Paris looking a little more like her old self, taking on a qualifier with the prospect of meeting Serena in the fourth round, although she would have to get past Karolina Pliskova first.
All this excitement features in the top half of the draw, led by Halep and the third-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who faces off against another former champion in Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The bottom half features No 2 seed Wozniacki, the defending champion Jelena Ostapenko, No 8 Petra Kvitova and No 9 Venus Williams, with whom Serena Williams has entered the doubles draw.
Johanna Konta is hoping for better fortunes after a disappointing start to the year when she faces her first-round opponent, Yulia Putintseva from Kazakhstan, while Latvia’s Ostapenko will begin the defence of her title against Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova.
British No1 is confident she can break her French Open duck this year as the 27-year old is feeling at home on the clay following her run to the last 16 of last week’s Italian Open, where she eventually lost to Ostapenko.
Even one victory in Paris would be a welcome boost ahead of the grass-court season where Konta, who has slipped to 22 in the world, has many ranking points to defend.
“I feel like, regardless of surface, I’m playing better and better so I’m hoping to continue that here and keep building on that,” she said.
“I back myself in every way to be able to go deep into the tournament, go on to the end, but it starts with the first round.
“I feel very comfortable on this surface. I’ve also simplified a lot of things for the clay season this year; I’ve worked hard on not over-thinking it and just trusting in my movement and how it’s pretty much the same with all surfaces – I’m there to get behind the ball.”
Putintseva has a reputation as a fiery opponent but Konta has won both of their previous meetings.
“She’s an incredibly feisty player, a very tough competitor so I’m fully prepared and really looking forward to a tough and competitive match in that way,” added Konta.
If Konta can come through, she potentially should meet Venus Williams in round three and Ostapenko in the fourth.
The Latvian, however, could face her first stern test in the second round where she would meet the former World No 1, Victoria Azarenka, also recently returned to the tour after the custody battle over her baby son, Leo and unseeded.
Britain’s other representative in the women’s singles’ draw, World No 86 Heather Watson, is in the top half and faces France’s Oceane Dodin in her opener.
Free of two of the game’s most dangerous floaters, the bottom looks to be the easier of the two halves of the draw, but is sure to present its own pitfalls.
If the form book is to prevail, then the quarter-finalists should be Halep v Garcia, Pliskova v Muguruza, Svitolina v Ostapenko and Kvitova v Wozniacki.
All eyes will, no doubt, focus on Serena Williams and how this mighty champion can navigate her way towards a potential fourth French Open title.
Sixteen months since she pulled off the remarkable feat of winning the Australian Open when eight weeks pregnant, Williams is now attempting another wholly unfeasible achievement by winning her first Grand Slam as a mother at her first attempt.
If she does land a 24th Grand Slam title after having played just four matches in two tournaments all season, then it would arguably top anything she has managed before in her matchless career.
To reach the quarter-final, however, she must deal with the queen of aces, Pliskova, with Muguruza firmly in her sights.
The Spaniard beat her in straight sets in the 2016 Rolland Garros final, just as she had been a couple of years earlier in the second round.
It seems an on-song Muguruza comes alive when she sees Serena on Chatrier.
There is just so much to look forward to over the coming two weeks of women’s tennis on the red dirt.