French Open preview

French Open 2018: Halep seeks first Major in battle for No1 with Wozniacki, Muguruza and more

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the French Open, where Jelena Ostapenko is looking to defend the title she won last year

Simona Halep
Simona Halep is among the big names in action in Paris Photo: Dubai Duty Free Championships

Simona Halep may be No1 in both the main WTA rankings and the Race to Singapore, but her long-standing fight to reach and then stay at the top of women’s tennis will continue as she pursues the other crowning ambition of her professional life, her first Major title.

Since Halep rose to the top last October, she has already been overtaken by Caroline Wozniacki once—courtesy of the Dane’s first Major, in Australia, after her own long pursuit of one of the ‘big ones’. Wozniacki had previously reached two finals and four further semi-finals, and spent more than 12 months at No1 seven years ago: It took her a long time to finally lift that Major trophy.

Now Halep is threatened by Wozniacki again, and by a slew of other women, too—a situation exacerbated by her success in the French capital.

Last year, Halep came desperately close to fulfilling her dream, losing a tight three-set final, and she has been runner-up at two more Majors. But success brings with it points to defend, and while finally winning the title here would keep her at the top, she has to reach at least the semis to keep her No1 spot.

She stressed to the press on Media Day at Roland Garros that she was able to put any such thoughts out of her mind:

“It’s not that difficult to [put it to the back of my mind], because I know that every match is going to be very tough. It’s a Grand Slam. Everyone is at the highest level here. So it’s going to be difficult. I’m not thinking about the title. I’m thinking just of my first match… So I will go there and I will take day by day.”

As for Wozniacki, if she replicated her quarter-final run last year, she can immediately put the pressure on Halep, who will have to reach the final. If the Dane wins her second straight Major, she will take No1 outright.

And then there is the role of other contenders: Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Garcia and Karolina Pliskova, though all of them have relatively slim chances of overtaking the top two seeds if other results do not fall their way.

Muguruza, a former French champion and current Wimbledon champion, has certainly had consistent results in Paris, making the second week in her last four appearances, and she briefly rose to No1 last September. But she must reach the semi-finals to have a chance at No1—and there lies the rub.

Her quarter, the lower section in Halep’s half, is packed with big challenges for the Spanish woman. Try former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener, and former finalist Sam Stosur as a possible Round 3 opponent.

The quarters will bring the survivor of perhaps the toughest eighth in the draw: The in-form Pliskova, the newly seeded former champion Maria Sharapova, and unseeded Dominika Cibulkova and multiple French champion Serena Williams.

The position for Svitolina is similar in the bottom half. The No4 seed has won her last eight finals, including the Rome Premier last week. That she has to win the title to reach No1 makes hers a near-impossible task—and the results of Wozniacki and Halep come into the equation as well.

She will be favoured to reach the quarters, despite the presence of the dangerous Naomi Osaka, but there she could meet Venus Williams, Johanna Konta, Jelena Ostapenko or the unseeded Victoria Azarenka.

But what hopes of a home champion? No7 Caroline Garcia arrives with a string of deep runs on the clay this spring, and has made a considerable rise since her quarter-final run at Roland Garros last year, ranked 27.

If she is to become the first French woman to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen since 2000, she will likely have to claim some big scalps. One of the form players of the last few months, Kiki Bertens, plus Angelique Kerber are possible Round 4 opponents, and she sits in Halep’s quarter with Elise Mertens, who won on the clay of Rabat and Lugano.

And of course, there is that killer second quarter to follow—Muguruza, Serena Williams, Sharapova and Pliskova.

But her chances of the title are better than they are of climbing to No1—which no Frenchwoman has done since 2004. To do that, she will need to win the title, see Wozniacki fall before the Round 4, and Halep fail to reach the semis.

But Paris can dream.

Of course, all these permutations must take into account the very different picture from this time last year.

Back then, defending champion Serena Williams could not play: she would have her first child fewer than four months later. And Victoria Azarenka was yet to make her return from ‘maternity leave’,

Sharapova was not granted a wild card when her seeding remained rock bottom following her year-long ban for a doping offence.

Petra Kvitova, after the attack to her playing hand the previous Christmas, would play her very first match back in Paris. She managed to win an emotional opener but lost in the second round.

And Kvitova has this year shown real class on her least successful surface, winning in Prague and Madrid. She played down her chances, but none of her colleagues will:

“Now I think there are probably bigger favourites of Roland Garros than me, no? And just for me to play my first match, we will see how it goes, but of course I will do my best, as always.”

All these missing women are now back in the mix this year, and it would also be wrong to discount Ostapenko’s chances of defending the title she won in such scintillating style, at barely 20 years old, last year. The victory catapulted her from 50 to five in the ranks, and while she has not scored big since reaching the Miami final this year, that will not deter the ever-improving Latvian.

Simona Halep may be No1 in both the main WTA rankings and the Race to Singapore, but her long-standing fight to reach and then stay at the top of women’s tennis will continue as she pursues the other crowning ambition of her professional life, her first Major title.

Since Halep rose to the top last October, she has already been overtaken by Caroline Wozniacki once—courtesy of the Dane’s first Major, in Australia, after her own long pursuit of one of the ‘big ones’. Wozniacki had previously reached two finals and four further semi-finals, and spent more than 12 months at No1 seven years ago: It took her a long time to finally lift that Major trophy.

Now Halep is threatened by Wozniacki again, and by a slew of other women, too—a situation exacerbated by her success in the French capital.

Last year, Halep came desperately close to fulfilling her dream, losing a tight three-set final, and she has been runner-up at two more Majors. But success brings with it points to defend, and while finally winning the title here would keep her at the top, she has to reach at least the semis to keep her No1 spot.

She stressed to the press on Media Day at Roland Garros that she was able to put any such thoughts out of her mind:

“It’s not that difficult to [put it to the back of my mind], because I know that every match is going to be very tough. It’s a Grand Slam. Everyone is at the highest level here. So it’s going to be difficult. I’m not thinking about the title. I’m thinking just of my first match… So I will go there and I will take day by day.”

As for Wozniacki, if she replicated her quarter-final run last year, she can immediately put the pressure on Halep, who will have to reach the final. If the Dane wins her second straight Major, she will take No1 outright.

And then there is the role of other contenders: Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Garcia and Karolina Pliskova, though all of them have relatively slim chances of overtaking the top two seeds if other results do not fall their way.

Muguruza, a former French champion and current Wimbledon champion, has certainly had consistent results in Paris, making the second week in her last four appearances, and she briefly rose to No1 last September. But she must reach the semi-finals to have a chance at No1—and there lies the rub.

Her quarter, the lower section in Halep’s half, is packed with big challenges for the Spanish woman. Try former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener, and former finalist Sam Stosur as a possible Round 3 opponent.

The quarters will bring the survivor of perhaps the toughest eighth in the draw: The in-form Pliskova, the newly seeded former champion Maria Sharapova, and unseeded Dominika Cibulkova and multiple French champion Serena Williams.

The position for Svitolina is similar in the bottom half. The No4 seed has won her last eight finals, including the Rome Premier last week. That she has to win the title to reach No1 makes hers a near-impossible task—and the results of Wozniacki and Halep come into the equation as well.

She will be favoured to reach the quarters, despite the presence of the dangerous Naomi Osaka, but there she could meet Venus Williams, Johanna Konta, Jelena Ostapenko or the unseeded Victoria Azarenka.

But what hopes of a home champion? No7 Caroline Garcia arrives with a string of deep runs on the clay this spring, and has made a considerable rise since her quarter-final run at Roland Garros last year, ranked 27.

If she is to become the first French woman to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen since 2000, she will likely have to claim some big scalps. One of the form players of the last few months, Kiki Bertens, plus Angelique Kerber are possible Round 4 opponents, and she sits in Halep’s quarter with Elise Mertens, who won on the clay of Rabat and Lugano.

And of course, there is that killer second quarter to follow—Muguruza, Serena Williams, Sharapova and Pliskova.

But her chances of the title are better than they are of climbing to No1—which no Frenchwoman has done since 2004. To do that, she will need to win the title, see Wozniacki fall before the Round 4, and Halep fail to reach the semis.

But Paris can dream.

Of course, all these permutations must take into account the very different picture from this time last year.

Back then, defending champion Serena Williams could not play: she would have her first child fewer than four months later. And Victoria Azarenka was yet to make her return from ‘maternity leave’,

Sharapova was not granted a wild card when her seeding remained rock bottom following her year-long ban for a doping offence.

Petra Kvitova, after the attack to her playing hand the previous Christmas, would play her very first match back in Paris. She managed to win an emotional opener but lost in the second round.

And Kvitova has this year shown real class on her least successful surface, winning in Prague and Madrid. She played down her chances, but none of her colleagues will:

“Now I think there are probably bigger favourites of Roland Garros than me, no? And just for me to play my first match, we will see how it goes, but of course I will do my best, as always.”

All these missing women are now back in the mix this year, and it would also be wrong to discount Ostapenko’s chances of defending the title she won in such scintillating style, at barely 20 years old, last year. The victory catapulted her from 50 to five in the ranks, and while she has not scored big since reaching the Miami final this year, that will not deter the ever-improving Latvian.

Former French Open champions and finalists in 2018 draws

Jelena Ostapenko (defending champion)

Garbine Muguruza (2016 champion)

Serena Williams (2015, 2013, 2002 champion, 2016 finalist)

Maria Sharapova (2014 and 2012 champion, 2013 finalist)

Francesca Schiavone (2010 champion, 2011 finalist)

Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009 champion, 2006 finalist)

Simona Halep (2014 and 2017 finalist)

Lucie Safarova (2015 finalist)

Sara Errani (2012 finalist)

Sam Stosur (2010 finalist)

Venus Williams (2002 finalist)

Champions on clay this season

Svitolina, Mertens, Kvitova, Bertens, Anna Karolína Schmiedlová, Pliskova, Pauline Parmentier, Irina Khromacheva [plus Strasbourg and Nurnberg this week]

Who falls where?

Halep quarter

R1: Alison Riske

R2: Myrtille Georges or Taylor Townsend

R3: No29 Kristina Mladenovic

R4: No24 Daria Gavrilova or No16 Mertens

QF: No12 Kerber, No18 Bertens, No27 Shuai Zhang, No7 Garcia

SF: No3 Muguruza, No6 Pliskova

Muguruza quarter

R1: Kuznetsova

R2: Fiona Ferro or Carrina Witthoeft

R3: No30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

R4: No19 Magdalena Rybarikova or No15 Coco Vandeweghe

QF: No11 Julia Goerges, No17 Ashleigh Barty, No28 Sharapova, No6 Pliskova

SF: No1 Halep, No7 Garcia

Svitolina quarter

R1: Ajla Tomljanovic

R2: Viktoria Kuzmova or qualifier

R3: No31 Mihaela Buzarnescu

R4: No21 Osaka or No13 Madison Keys

QF: No9 V Williams, No22 Konta, No26 Barbora Strycova, No5 Ostapenko

SF: No2 Wozniacki, No8 Kvitova

Wozniacki quarter

R1: Danielle Collins

R2: Timea Bacsinszky or qualifier

R3: No32 Alize Cornet

R4: No14 Daria Kasatkina or No23 Carla Suarez Navarro

QF: No10 Sloane Stephens, No20 Anastasija Sevastova, No25 Kontaveit, No8 Kvitova

SF: No4 Svitolina, No5 Ostapenko

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