WILL EVANS serves up tennis tips as he casts his eye over the women’s section of the 2021 French Open draw. The champions of the past two years – Iga Świątek and Aussie Ash Barty – headline a white-hot field.
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The defending champ has rocketed into favouritism following Simona Halep’s injury withdrawal and a sizzling lead-in. But Świątek’s devastating run to claim the 2020 French Open should be enough to have every other contender shaking in their boots. The previously unheralded 19-year-old did not drop a set and lost no more than five games during a dominant fortnight at Roland Garros. The world No.9 swept aside a host of big names on her way to the Italian Open title two weeks ago, losing just one set in six matches. The player to beat as she looks to become the first back-to-back French Open winner since Justin Henin (2005-07).
Aussie darling Ash Barty returns to Paris for the first time since winning her first and only major in 2019. An arm injury – which forced her to withdraw during her Italian Open quarter-final two weeks ago – is a concern. Prior to that, the world No.1 had been in blistering touch, winning the Stuttgart Open and reaching the Madrid Open final. The 25-year-old Barty has a tough road to the final, with Ons Jabeur a possible third-round opponent, Jennifer Brady or Coco Gauff potentially awaiting in the Round of 16, Elina Svitolina looming as a quarter-final opponent, and last year’s finalists Sofia Kenin and Świątek in her semi-final path.
The past five French Opens have produced a first-time Grand Slam winner – an extraordinary statistic. Sabalenka shapes as a huge chance of maintaining the trend, despite never previously getting past the fourth round at a major. The 23-year-old Belarusian lost the Stuttgart Open final to Barty, before turning the tables on Barty in the Madrid Open final. Now ranked fourth in the world, Sabalenka has won four WTA titles since the tour’s post-COVID resumption. She should go deep into the next fortnight.
The 2016 French Open champion is a perennial Grand Slam threat, winning Wimbledon in 2017, and reaching the French Open semis in 2018 and the Australian Open final last year. Muguruza made a superb hard-court start to 2021, making the Yarra Valley Classic and Qatar Open finals, before winning the Dubai Championships. Her brief build-up on clay – falling to Elina Svitolina in the Italian Open Round of 16 after sitting out Madrid with a thigh injury – shouldn’t deter punters.
The reigning US and Australian Open champ – winning two of the past three of both Slam events – Osaka has gone on to win every major in which she has made it past the fourth round. But the hard-court destroyer has a modest clay record and hasn’t been past the third round at a French Open. She sat out the tournament last year, soon after taking out the US Open. Osaka lost in the second round in Madrid and the first round in Rome recently, but few rivals will be looking forward to encountering the world No.2.
A three-time French Open winner (2002, 2013, 2015), Williams continues her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title – and her first since the 2017 Australian Open. The 39-year-old women’s tennis G.O.A.T. reached the semis of the most recent US and Australian Opens, proving she is still a formidable force. But Williams has not made it to the last eight at Roland Garros since 2016. She was beaten by Nadia Podoroska in her first-up assignment at the Italian Open – Williams’ first match since the Australian Open – and was tipped up by Katerina Siniakova at the Parma Challenger last week. A fairytale seems unlikely.
Along with the likes of Sabalenka, Svitolina and Paula Badosa, American prodigy Gauff shapes as a contender to continuing the first-time major winner streak at the French Open. It’s two years since Gauff burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old with a fourth-round charge on Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon. She is yet to progress further at a major, but the Florida product has reached a career-high ranking of No.25 with some impressive recent results. Gauff made it to the Charleston Open quarters and Italian Open semis (albeit after Barty retired while ahead during their quarter-final), and accounted for some quality opponents in winning last week’s Challenger in Parma.