Will Świątek Repeat? Can Serena Break Her Drought? Profiling the Top Women’s Contenders at Roland Garros
When Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, it seemed only a matter of time until she joined Margaret Court with the most grand slam singles titles in history. Four years on, she’s still searching for that elusive 24th major. Can she finally break her drought at the French Open this week?
Soon after her 2017 triumph in Melbourne, Williams announced she was pregnant with her first child. After more than a year out of the game, she made her grand slam return at Roland Garros the following year, reaching the fourth round. The American would go on to reach the final at Wimbledon and the US Open later in the year, but was denied by Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.
Again in 2019, she went close at SW19 and Flushing Meadows, getting to both finals only to fall at the last hurdle – this time Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu stopping her. She failed to win a set in any of those four finals, and across 28 matches at those tournaments she only defeated two top-10 players.
Serena Williams’ Grand Slam Record:
Grand Slam Titles W-L Win % Australian Open 7 92-13 87.6% French Open 3 66-13 83.5% Wimbledon 7 98-12 89.1% US Open 6 106-14 88.3%
It seems age and injuries might finally be catching up with the 39-year-old, and her recent record on clay, and specifically at Roland Garros, do not give much cause for optimism. Since returning from her maternity break, she hasn’t made it past the fourth round at the French Open in three attempts, withdrawing in the second round last year. Historically it is her weakest slam. Just three of her 23 titles have come on Court Philippe-Chatrier, and her career winning percentage of 83.5 is her lowest at any of the four grand slams.
After a semi-final run at the Australian Open in January this year, she took a lengthy break, only returning for the Italian Open earlier this month. The transition to clay has not been a smooth one, beaten by world No. 44 Nadia Podoroska in her first match in Rome, and knocked out by world No. 68 Kateřina Siniaková at the WTA 250 tournament in Parma the following week.
“I actually love clay. I love playing on clay. So I don’t think it’s a negative, but, you know, I think if anything it helps to keep that rhythm of clay,” she said after he loss to Podoroska. “Unfortunately, I only played one match last year on clay, and I haven’t been playing a lot on clay in the last two years. So, yeah, it will be good to get back and keep working on it.
“Just filling out the game, finding the rhythm. Even sliding and confidence with that, with movement, and just not wanting to break my ankle when I moved. That’s always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I’m raring to go.”
Were Serena to pull off an unlikely victory in Paris, it would break her own record for the longest span between two grand slam wins at the same venue — 19 years on from her first title back in 2002. But there will be a host of contenders lining up to stop her.
First among them will be the defending champion, Iga Świątek. The 19-year-old caused a stir when she upset the field to claim her maiden grand slam title in September. She’s gone from strength to strength since then, winning two more titles on the WTA Tour and capped off her triumph in Rome last week with a 6-0 6-0 demolition of Karolina Plíšková in the final. The Pole won last year’s title at Roland Garros without dropping a set, becoming the only player from outside the top 50 in the rankings to reach the final in the 2000s.
“I always try to learn from what other girls experienced,” Świątek said in Rome. “And there are many players that have some kind of regression after winning their first Grand Slam, so I always thought, ‘Hey, try to be different. Just work and just focus on not doing the same mistakes.'”
Now firmly ensconced in the top 10 in the rankings, Świątek could be the first woman to win consecutive titles at Roland-Garros since Justine Henin won three in a row from 2005-07.
This year’s tournament may also feel like a title defense for world No. 1 Ash Barty. The Australian chose not to play at Roland Garros last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and so will be back on the Paris clay for the first time since she lifter her maiden slam title there in 2019.
No player has won more matches on clay this season than Barty’s 13, and she has a WTA-leading 27 wins in total so far in 2021. That has brought her three titles already this year – the Yarra Valley Classic, Miami Open and Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, as well as a narrow defeat to Aryna Sabalenka in the final of the Madrid Open.
Player World Ranking 2021 W-L 2021 Clay W-L Best French Open Result Ash Barty 1 27-5 13-3 W (2019) Naomi Osaka 2 13-3 1-2 R3 (’16, ’18, ‘19) Aryna Sabalenka 4 25-7 11-2 R3 (2020) Serena Williams 8 9-3 1-2 W (‘02, ’13, ‘15) Iga Świątek 9 19-5 8-1 W (2020)
She arrives in Paris under an injury cloud though, after pulling out of the Italian Open with a right arm injury. Barty insisted that was just a precaution, and that she would be ready to go at Roland Garros.
“It needs time to recover, and that means a little bit of time with no racquets, but it’s also important to kind of increase the load gradually and being able to use a training week to get the right load into it and it’s really important without tipping it over the edge,” she said. “I’m confident in my team that we know how to manage this injury, and we just need to do the right things now and make the right decisions now to know that in a couple weeks it will be fine.
“I hate withdrawing. I mean, I hate pulling out of a match halfway through. It’s not in my makeup, not what I like to do, but it was really important today that I listen to what my body was telling me to make sure that in a couple weeks’ time we’re good to go.”
Sabalenka is one who will be looking to make her grand slam breakthrough in Paris. She overcame Barty for the Madrid title, her second of the year, and has an 11-2 record on clay this season. However, the Belarusian is one of the two players currently ranked in the top 20 in the WTA ranking yet to reach a quarterfinal of a major tournament, along with Maria Sakkari.
No discussion of the favorites would be complete without Naomi Osaka, who has won the last two grand slam titles. Like Williams, clay is by far her weakest surface and she has rarely enjoyed much success in Paris. The world No. 2 has never been past the third round at Roland Garros, and this year has won just one of her three matches on clay. But she knows how to win on the big stage, having not lost a grand slam match since January 2020, and can never be discounted.
The French Open is notoriously hard to predict, and how players adapt to the Roland Garros clay often plays a massive part in who lifts the trophy. As Serena chases another slice of history, she’ll need to rely on all her experience and guile to hold off the WTA’s next generation of stars and etch her name in the record books once again.
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