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French Open Preview: Halep is women’s favourite

The draw for the French Open was made in Paris on Thursday, with Simona Help as the top seed and Johanna Konta leading the British charge.

I'm honoured to hear that I am the favourite, people thinking that I'm the favourite. But I don't look in that direction. I know that most of the players are favourite because everyone is working hard, everyone is ready for this tournament. So I'm not going into that too much. I just try to play my chance, try to play every match, and we will see how is going to be in the end. Simona Halep

Konta opens her Roland Garros campaign with a tough starter in American teenage prodigy Coco Gauff in what is certain be a marquee match.

The British No 1 reversed her lacklustre performances on the clay, shrugging off 4 consecutive first-round losses with a spectacular run to the semi-finals last year.

This will be only Konta’s 9th tournament in this year’s interrupted season, with the tour forced to take a complete break between March and August because of coronavirus, and the British No 1 fears the pandemic that pitched the French Open from May into the autumn will haunt tennis for a long time.

“There’s a very big hopefulness that, come January 1st, 2021, everything’s going to be normal,” Konta said. “Unfortunately, it’s not the case.

“It’s going to be very difficult, and very different for a long time, possibly for the rest of my playing career.

“But, hopefully, in time, not just tennis and not just sport, but everyone will find a way to come through this, or live alongside it.”

China’s decision not to hold any international sporting events in 2020 was a major blow for the WTA, with most of the tour’s autumn calendar taking place in Asia, including the lucrative WTA Finals in Shenzhen.

Konta is hoping to play in the Ostrava Open next month, which currently is the only tour-level event scheduled for the rest of the year for the women.

“I know they are trying to relocate tournaments for one year only, and bring opportunities, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle because it’s just the nature of what our season looks like,” said the British No 1.

“I think the men have a lot of opportunities still in Europe, but that’s what their season already looks like.

“We got the short end of the stick there, but that’s just the reality of what we have going on in the world.”

In Paris, Konta is in the same quarter as the top seed and hot favourite, Simona Halep, and has only Heather Watson, who is up first against Fiona Ferro, for home company after Harriet Dart fell in the second round of qualifying on Thursday.

Halep arrives in Paris as the player to beat in a women’s field missing title holder and Ashleigh Barty and recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka, two of the world’s top three.

Serena Williams can never be discounted as she launches yet another bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles crown, but Roland Garros, on clay, is the American’s least successful major despite her wins here in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who defeated Williams in the 2016 final, is another contender, while fellow former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka is hoping to take the momentum from her run to the US Open final into the clay court major.

Last year’s runner-up Marketa Vondrousova will again target a deep run in Paris, having rediscovered some form at last week’s Italian Open, where she made the semi-finals before losing to compatriot Karolina Pliskova.

The World No 4 Czech retired from the final in Rome last week with a thigh injury after dropping the first set to Halep, who extended her winning run to 14 matches after capturing a second consecutive title coming out of lockdown.

Pliskova, the second seed in Paris, says Halep is undoubtedly the favourite for the title.

“I think she’s going to be the favourite from the women’s tournament, because I think also the way she played, she played already [and won] Prague on clay. She won this tournament,” Pliskova said in Rome.

“So I feel like she’s confident. For sure she’s going to be dangerous.

“I know the weather is not looking that great in Paris, so I think the conditions just to like play aggressive game against her is going to be quite tough.”

Konta’s campaign

Konta will, no doubt, relish the prospect of taking on Gauff, who is no stranger to tough first-rounders at the majors.

The 16-year American had to play Venus Williams in her opening match at two of her first three majors and won both, while at the US Open weeks ago, she faced former Top 15 player, and 2018 US Open semi-finalist, Anastasija Sevastova.

Konta’s aggressive game is just as dangerous on the clay as it is anywhere else, and she is a 3-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, with one of those runs coming here in Paris in 2019.

Gauff has done very well on these courts too, though, winning the junior title in 2018, but this is her first time playing in the main draw.

Meanwhile, World No 56 Heather Watson starts her campaign against France’s Fiona Ferro after being knocked out of the US Open first round by Konta.

Jo Konta, who lost the tight opening set to Garbine Muguruza in Rome, has a tough opener against teenage sensation Cori 'Coco' Gauff in Paris

© Angelo Carconi - Pool/Getty Images

Halep’s half of the draw

Former champion Simona Halep spent the break working hard on her fitness, and says the global health crisis has given her a fresh outlook on tennis.

“I’m more mature, I think. The pandemic got me in a place that I really dreamed to be,” she told WTA Insider recently. “I am more relaxed because I could see that the most difficult things are in life in general, not in sport.”

No woman has successfully defended the French Open title since Justine Henin won three times in a row between 2005 and 2007, a trend set to continue with Barty pulling out over the coronavirus fears that also prompted her to skip the US Open.

A sore hamstring has sidelined three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, while Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, will now miss the whole season.

Despite these notable absentees, the field in Paris is stronger than that of the US Open, where 6 of the world’s top 10 players skipped the event, with the return of Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic.

The top seed opens with Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, the World No 78, who comes in with just one Roland-Garros main draw victory to her name.

The first seeded player the former Paris champion could meet is the 19-year-old American, Amanda Anisimova, who up-ended the Romanian’s title defence campaign in the quarters last year, while wild card Eugenie Bouchard, coming off of a final showing in Istanbul, has also landed in Halep’s section of the draw.

Her quarter has its share of quality players, including Konta, Maria Sakkari, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dayana Yastremska, Shelby Rogers and Kiki Bertens.

If she slides through to week two, Halep could face off with last year’s runner-up Marketa Vondrousa in the round of 16.

Boasting a 28-9 lifetime record in Paris, Halep has played 3 of the last 6 Roland-Garros finals, but there are dangerous floaters abound in the draw, a few of them youngsters who have already created waves on the Paris clay.

Ahead of Paris Halep told reporters that she would need a few more practice sessions to get a good feel for the conditions.

“It’s a big difference between Rome and here, that’s for sure, 15 degrees less,” said, Halep, laughing, who is set to kick off her tournament on Sunday. “I feel the cold. I feel like struggling a little bit. But for everybody it is the same.”

Iga Swiatek of Poland reached the second week on her Roland-Garros debut in 2019, but to win a round here the World No 52 has to survive a heavily-anticipated first-round clash with Vondrousova, the World No 19.

The top half of the draw also features American sensation and 2018 Roland-Garros girls’ singles champion Coco Gauff but the 16-year-old has her work cut out for her if she is to progress as she comes up against Konta, the No 9 seed, in the first round.

Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez, who lifted the girls’ singles trophy in Paris 15 months ago, has made a seamless transition to the women’s circuit and arrives at Roland-Garros ranked 100 in the world but she is the bottom half.

Karolina Pliskova pulled out of the Rome final to nurse a left thigh injury

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Pliskova’s potential pathway

The No 2 seed Karolina Pliskova is nursing a left thigh injury that forced her to retire from the Rome final last weekend, and has landed in a section of the draw that is littered with talent.

The Czech is a conundrum at the majors, often erratic, and with the likes of Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko, 2018 semi-finalist Madison Keys, and 2019 quarter-finalist Petra Martic all in her quarter, her pathway is rocky.

After opening against the history-making Mayar Sherif from Egypt, who has yet to drop a set in 3 rounds of qualifying, Pliskova could face Ostapenko in the second round, and Stephens in the third.

Pliskova, a 2017 semi-finalist herself at Roland Garros, will need to get through the first week unscathed where her round of 16 opponent could be Martic, the woman who toppled her out of the 3rd round in straight sets last year.

Also in the lower half of the draw, is 2016 champion Garbiñe Muguruza, who is sporting a tidy 27-6 lifetime record at Roland-Garros and squares off with Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek in a first-time meeting.

Muguruza is carrying a slight upper leg injury from Rome, but her game and hunger were there, evidenced by her capacity for scrappy, smart, battling tennis that could make all the difference if the weather turns cool.

“I played many years where the tournament was a little bit rainy and grey,” Muguruza said. “I went good. I’m not too concerned about the weather.

“I know it’s going to be tricky. But I’m excited to be here. I look at it in a positive way, the fact that they can still make another Grand Slam happening.

“I don’t really care [about] the weather or the month. I’m just happy to be here competing.”

Things could get interesting for the Spaniard quickly in Paris, though, as she could face blossoming American Jennifer Brady, the title winner in Lexington, in the 3rd round.

Brady, who played one of the best matches of the US Open against Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals, is not a proven force on the clay yet, but she did earn a victory over Muguruza in three sets this year in Dubai.

If the seeds hold, Muguruza, the No 11 seed, would face Aryna Sabalenka in the round of 16 and No 4 seed Sofia Kenin in the quarter-finals.

No 18 seed Angelique Kerber is also drawn in this quarter, as she resumes her quest to complete a career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros.

The German is on a possible third-round collision course with former US Open finalist Keys, the No 12 seed.

Serena Williams has not played a match since losing to Victoria Azarenka at the US Open

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Serena’s quest

Since 2017, when Serena Williams had her baby, the women’s draws at the majors have been wide open and favourites have been hard to come by, but this year Halep looks solid, having won here in 2018 and just winning in Rome, but she also now carries a target on her back.

“I’m honoured to hear that I am the favourite, people thinking that I’m the favourite,” Halep said. “But I don’t look in that direction.

“I know that most of the players are favourite because everyone is working hard, everyone is ready for this tournament.

“So I’m not going into that too much. I just try to play my chance, try to play every match, and we will see how is going to be in the end.”

She could be Serena Williams’ semi-final opponent but ever-present danger lurks for the American as she continues her quest for a record-tying 24th major title.

Serena had a fierce battle with Ahn, her opening opponent, at Flushing Meadows, but bounced back to win in 2 tight sets.

“Kristie [Ahn] really strikes the ball hard. She mixes it up a lot. She plays a lot of the different shots,” Serena said. “You don’t really know what to expect.

“I thought her game was really, really, really good to the point where I had to make sure. I was down a break at one point, so I was fighting for everything.”

This also is the first time the American is playing on clay since falling to Kenin in the 3rd round 16 months ago.

If things go as planned for the 6th seeded American, she could find a familiar face across the net in the round of 16 in the form of Victoria Azarenka, the resurgent force that spoiled Williams’ party at the US Open just a couple of weeks ago in the semi-finals.

There are potential pitfalls along the way for both players, as Azarenka, the No 10 seed, could square off against unseeded Venus Williams in the second round, while Serena opens with compatriot Kristie Ahn and could take on Tsvetana Pironkova in round two, who took her to 3 sets in a tense US Open quarter-final earlier this month.

Looking at the entirety of this section, Halep’s path to the semi-finals would seem to be as smooth as she could have asked, with the second-highest seed in this section being Kiki Bertens, who hasn’t won a match since February, and the player Halep is slotted to play in the 4th round, Vondrousova, still finding her rhythm after undergoing wrist surgery last autumn.

Serena says she feels like she ‘always’ has to play either her sister Venus, or Vika [Azarenka] and could face one or the other in the 4th round.

Azarenka has had a spotty relationship with the ‘terre battue’, but she made the semi-finals at Roland Garros in 2013 and two quarter-finals.

“I’m actually excited of kind of building up my game on clay,” said Azarenka, who has won just one of her 21 titles on clay. “The second year I enjoy it after 16 years on tour

“ It’s about time to make some evolution on clay. I’m looking forward to it.”

Other potential contenders in this quarter include Elina Svitolina, the No 3 seed, who is gradually going deeper at the majors, Elise Mertens, Anett Kontaveit, and Ekaterina Alexandrova, all reliable performers in 2020.

On paper, Sofia Kenin is the No 4 seed, but on recent form she might not be seeded at all after disappointing performances at the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, and in Rome where she lost by a double bagel, 6-0 6-0, to Azarenka.

Kenin could well turn things around, however, having beaten Serena here 12 months ago, and her early matches this year look winnable.



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