Coaching changes set to inspire
Bertens, Osaka, Kvitova among those in the frame with defending champ Halep.
If you are of the view, reader, that it is perfectly obvious who will lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen at Roland-Garros 2019, then you must surely be struggling to find anyone else nodding sagely in agreement.
With a blizzard of players mathematically capable of departing Paris as the world No.1, a veritable throng are in serious contention here – and that’s disregarding the possibility of an unheralded Jelena Ostapenko left-fielder emerging 2017-style. Let’s take a look at the eight women most likely to wear the crown.
Surging into the running this spring, the 27-year-old Dutchwoman has gained a new peak ranking – No.4 – via her triumph in Madrid and semi-final in Rome, making her the Netherlands’ highest-ever ranked female player. Three years ago she became her nation’s first woman to reach a semi-final on the Paris clay since 1971.
Since then she has won 8 WTA titles (to add to her maiden victory in 2012). The past three Roland-Garros champions have all been first-time major winners, so her besting in Madrid of Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Simona Halep will be stowed usefully in the confidence locker. France’s world No.65 Pauline Parmentier, who actually leads their career meetings 3-0, is her first-round opponent.
Twelve months ago Halep was gloriously released from the burden of being a world No.1 without a Grand Slam to her name, having fallen short in three previous major finals. She has spoken often since of the sense of peace it gave her, but it seems not to have released her to further achievement.
She has gone no further than the last 16 in the three Grand Slams since, and her lone title since Roland-Garros 2018 came in Montreal last summer. Runner-up to Bertens in Madrid, she fell at the first hurdle in Rome, but it would be a shock indeed if the same fate befell her against Australia’s world No.47 Alja Tomljanovic in the opening round here.
Yet to pierce the top 20 on arrival at Roland-Garros a year ago, 21-year-old Osaka has a very different aura now. The Japanese world No.1 is currently on a 14-match Grand Slam winning streak and on paper should be feeling positive about making some inroads on her least favourite surface.
But shortly after she added this year’s Australian Open to last autumn’s US crown, she split from coach Sascha Bajin, citing her refusal to “put success over my happiness”; and 2019 has also seen her hampered by abdominal and right hand injuries. She assesses her clay season in the run-up to Roland-Garros as “rocky”.
World No.92 Anna Karolina Schmiedlova provides her first test here.
There could be no more popular champion than the Czech southpaw. The best of her 10 Roland-Garros visits to date is, by a distance, her 2012 semi-final, and it is four years since she so much as made the second week here. Faster surfaces are always friendlier to the 29-year-old’s game, yet last year she logged a 13-match winning streak on clay.
This year the surface has seen her win Stuttgart, fall to Bertens in Madrid and pull out with a left leg injury in Rome. But memories of her blazing performance in Australia when runner-up to Osaka make her more than a sentimental favourite here. She will take on Sorana Cirstea in the first round.
The world No.2 lands in Paris having snaffled the biggest clay-court title of her career in Rome (although her highest-ranked opponent there was No.37 Sofia Kenin). The 27-year-old’s game is more suited to faster surfaces, but she can do damage on clay too – although she was toppled early in both Stuttgart and Madrid this season.
Other than her 2017 semi-final, Pliskova has only once reached the last 32 here in seven visits. Her first hurdle in this edition, world No.97 Madison Brengle, looks simpler than her potential second round opponent – Roland-Garros 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, one of 13 current or former Grand Slam champions in the women’s draw.
The multiple problems Williams has fielded this year would be enough to rule out anyone else. Her only four tournaments this year has each concluded with a physical problem – the last of which was the left knee injury which ruled her out in Rome last week; the 37-year-old has played just two competitive sets on clay in the warm-up for Roland-Garros, and a mere three matches in total since the Australian Open four months ago.
Yet the 23-time Grand Slam champion has produced unexpected excellence at the four majors she has contested since the birth of her daughter 20 months ago. At her 17th visit to Roland-Garros, she is in the same tough half as Osaka, Halep and Kvitova, but first up is world No.82 Vitalia Diatchenko.
Last year’s runner-up was two games from the title against Halep before losing eight of the final nine games. Going into the European clay swing, her 2019 record stood at an unsatisfactory 6-6, before she looked to find an extra edge by hooking up with new coach Sven Groenfeld. The yield has been contrasting – semi-final in Madrid, and first-round defeat in Rome. Newly engaged to fiancé Jozy Altidore of the US national football team, the 26-year-old lines up here against the world No.110, left-handed Misaki Doi, in the opening round.
One year ago it would have been unthinkable to tack Svitolina’s name onto a list of Roland-Garros contenders as a mere “maybe”. In both 2017 and 2018 she came to Paris bearing the Italian trophy aloft, but fell in the third round and quarter-finals respectively.
In 2019 her European clay season is not only a trophy-free zone to date but brought a pair of first hurdle defeats in both Madrid and Rome. Physically she is noticeably stronger-looking than 12 months ago, and she may need this strength for her intriguing first-round clash with Venus Williams, who beat her on the Rome clay four years ago.