All eyes will be on Serena Williams as the WTA descend on the red clay of Roland Garros. The defending champion has won the event for two of the last three years, during a period of several seasons in which her domination of the tennis tour has swelled beyond belief
Her no. 1 status unchallenged and her game showing no signs of deterioration, Serena – with her passion, will, drive and hunger – is the most lethal opponent anyone could face in Paris. At one stage – before 2013, when the younger Williams sister possessed a lone French Open title – the opposition held out the hope that her clay-court inconsistency harboured an area of weakness. But right now, there are no areas of weakness in the Williams game. Multiple times she has suggested that clay is now her favourite surface. And if her lethal, overpowering game was not enough, Serena proved last year that she has more that one way in which to win a Grand Slam title. Weighed down by illness and struggling for form, the 34-year-old dragged herself to the 2015 title by sheer willpower – pulling herself from the brink of defeat time after time, with a competitive spirit that verged on scary.
A couple of weeks ago, you would be able to find more than a few willing to back another woman to raise the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, named for the French legend who won six Roland Garros crowns. After all, Williams had not won a title since last August and had only played three events due to spells of illness in the 2016 season so far. Moreover, she had actually suffered defeats at all three – to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final, Victoria Azarenka at the final of Indian Wells and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round of her ‘home’ event in Miami. Were age and nerves finally beginning to catch up to Serena? And could she really find her form on clay in time for the French Open with just one tournament, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, left to do so?
The answers, naturally, were no and yes respectively. Although she was not immune from lapses in her first two matches at the Foro Italico, by the time Williams faced Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals she was in good enough nick to inflict a crushing defeat on her fellow former French Open champion and the American went on to claim the 70th title of her glittering career when she defeated Madison Keys in the final, effectively silencing those who doubted that she could and would be the woman to beat once more in Paris.
The world no. 1 still has to overcome the rest of the field and her biggest opponent, herself, at Roland Garros, however – and if she slips up, any woman could take advantage. In the absence of two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova, who can usually be relied upon to make hay when Williams loses, the women’s field in Paris could be more excitingly unpredictable than ever.
That’s especially the case when two of the top three seeds do not have a good record at the French Open. World no. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber both struggle on outdoors red clay (both performed well in Stuttgart, Radwanska reaching the semifinals and Kerber successfully defending her title, but the conditions at the indoor event are very different from those in Paris). Radwanska lost her only match this season played on outdoor red clay while Kerber went 0-2 in Rome and Madrid, and both women have only made one quarterfinal at the French Open in nine attempts each.
Kerber’s confidence and level of play this season does not mean we should rule her out, but there are other women in the field whose chances of a good run look better. Unfortunately we cannot necessarily include Victoria Azarenka, probably the best player of the first quarter of the season after winning Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami, in that list. The world no. 5, a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2013, sustained a back injury in Madrid, forced to withdraw from that event and her attempt to play in Rome did not go well. Even if she is well enough to play at the French Open, the injury casts a serious cloud over her chances. World no. 8 Belinda Bencic is also on the injured list.
Who is looking good? World no. 4 Garbine Muguruza has made the quarterfinals of the French Open for the past two years and her powerful game works beautifully on clay; she has also proved she’s capable of deep Grand Slam runs with her runner-up finish at Wimbledon in 2015 and although it’s not been a great season for her so far, Muguruza suggested she might be rounding into form with a run to the semifinals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, boosting her confidence heading into the French Open. Runner-up at Roland Garros in 2014, Simona Halep might also be peaking at the right time, shaking off an injury-hit off-season and first quarter of 2016 to claim the Mutua Madrid Open title for the loss of just one set.
Italian veterans and Grand Slam runners-up Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani can never be disregarded, and 2015 French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky – back in the top 10 – is in good form as well, with a red-clay title in Rabat and a quarterfinal finish in Rome to her name. Doha champion Carla Suarez Navarro was sidelined by illness in Madrid but is not a player anyone will want to face in Paris, and 2015 runner-up Lucie Safarova claimed a clay title in Prague in the run-up to end a miserable stretch after a severe bacterial infection at the end of last year. Katowice Open champion Dominika Cibulkova has been racking up the big wins so far this season, finished runner-up in Madrid and has Roland Garros pedigree, making the semifinals there in the past; she is a player no one will want to face. And a pair of young Americans, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, are also worth keeping an eye on: Stephens has won a trio of titles already in 2016 and playing on clay, while the powerful Keys has suddenly found her feet on the surface with a quality run to the Internazionali BNL d’Italia final.
Some of the top seeds and usual suspects might be struggling, in other words, but Serena Williams looks in magnificent form, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza have both given reason to anticipate exciting runs, and players with proven Grand Slam pedigree hover lower down in the seedings, ready to break out and make a challenge for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Expect the unexpected when the 2016 French Open begins on Sunday 22 May.