French Open 2020 women’s preview: Former No1s Halep, Azarenka, Muguruza, hit form before Paris

Birthday girl and top seed Simona Halep favourite for second French title, No1 and defending champ Ash Barty stays away; US Open champ Naomi Osaka injured

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Simona Halep
Simona Halep (Photo: LTA, Nature Valley International / Getty Images)

Yes, the defending champion and world No1 Ashleigh Barty has opted to stay away from Paris—just as she did from New York and Rome.

And the US Open champion and world No3, Naomi Osaka, whose matches in New York resulted in an 11-1 run on her return to competition in August, needs to rehab her hamstring.

And while Paris’s second seed Karolina Pliskova looked in good form on her way to the final in Rome, she was forced to retire there with hamstring and back strains. She posted a reassuring Tweet that she was “feeling better now, and I will do anything possible to start at Roland Garros”.

But in this extraordinary tennis season, which went into lockdown before March and only emerged—behind closed doors—in August, such problems have become almost ‘normal’.

Many women stayed away from the Cincinnati/US Open double in New York to focus on the European clay. Travel across continents, to heavily-constrained set-ups and uncertain COVID-19 scenarios, have made players and their teams cautious. And the unseasonal placement of Rome and Roland Garros after the US Open swing has made decisions doubly tricky.

That said, some players have emerged with a new energy, focus and passion for their sport. Victoria Azarenka, whose long absences from the tour with physical and personal problems, hit the hard courts of North America as though she had never been away, reaching her first Major final since a stand-out 2013 season.

Has Simona Halep beamed as broadly as she did after winning her first Rome trophy a few days ago? If there is one surface she loves above all, it is clay—and she has clearly spent her time away from competition wisely. As a result, she has quickly put herself in the frame for a second French Open title.

And despite many up and downs in the fortunes of Garbine Mugurza, the stability and confidence she has demonstrated since joining up with Conchita Martinez have begun to deliver again: a final run at the Australian Open, the semis in Rome, and this former French Open champion could be ready for a title run.

But extraordinary times can bring extraordinary results. Who would dare to dismiss the mighty former champion Serena Williams as a potential winner? A look at the spirit and physical effort required to reach the semis of the US Open, via four three-setters and two Major champions, after playing five three-setters in the first two tournaments on her return from lockdown speaks volumes. However, she has been done few favours in a tough quarter of the draw.

For the second tournament in a row, Williams’ pursuit of her record-matching 24th Major will likely bring first Kristie Ahn, and then in the second round, the in-form wild card Tsvetana Pironkova.

Not only that, she could find Azarenka, the woman who stopped her in New York in the semis, in the fourth round. As for Azarenka, she could face the other Williams, Venus, in the second round. It is a hellish quarter, topped by No3 seed Elina Svitolina.

There is a lot of interest in the top quarter, too, which would deliver Williams’ semi opponent if she makes it that far. Kiki Bertens, a formidable clay exponent, is here, but so are last year’s finalist, 21-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, while Briton Johanna Konta faces off against the outstanding teenager, Coco Gauff, in her opener.

At the other end of the draw, Pliskova could meet unseeded former champion Jelena Ostapenko in the second round, with the winner potentially facing Sloane Stephens.

Petra Kvitova is the next highest seed in this quarter, with Angelique Kerber in the same eighth, though both are yet to really hit their stride since the return of the tour.

No4 seed Sofia Kenin tops the remaining quarter, which also features the woman she beat in the Australian Open final, Muguruza, and other potential upsets here might come courtesy of Ons Jabeur or Lexington champion Jennifer Brady.

In short, only the foolhardy would lay their reputation on the line for this peculiarly out-of-time French Open—but if forced to do that, the choice would have to be Halep.

What’s new at Roland Garros in 2020?

· Court Philippe Chatrier now has a retractable roof for the first time, and there is flood lighting on all 12 competition courts—though scheduled evening matches will not begin until 2021.

· All press conferences will be held via video—no face-to-face media interaction.

· Players may only come onto the site on match days, otherwise practise at the Jean-Bouin training centre, and they and their small entourages will all stay in two designated hotels.

· At the time of writing, there will be 5,000 ticket holders every day, all allocated to Philippe Chatrier (Parisian authorities, though, have announced a maximum of 1,000 at any one outside event, so this may change).

· Prize money: Total purse, €38.4 million; Singles champions, €1.6 million (-30%); First-round losers, €60,000 (representing the only main-draw prize increase, +30%).

Clay champions this season

Fiona Ferro (Palermo), Halep (Prague and Rome), Patricia Tig (Istanbul).

Former French Open champions and runners-up in 2020 draw

Halep (2018 champion, and runner-up 2014 and 2017)

Ostapenko (2017 champion)

Muguruza (2016 champion)

Serena Williams (2002, 2013, 2015 champion, and runner-up 2016)

Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009 champion, and runner-up 2006)

Venus Williams (2002 runner-up)

Stephens (2018 runner-up)

Vondrousova (2019 runner-up)

Top-100 players missing from draw

No1 (and defending champion) Barty, No3 Osaka, No7 Bianca Andreescu, No10 Belinda Bencic, No32 Qiang Wang, No39 Saisai Zheng, No48 Anastasija Sevastova, No78 Carla Suarez Navarro, No85 Taylor Townsend, No88 Yafan Wang, No92 Anastasia Potapova, No100 Tatjana Maria

British Round 1s

No9 seed Konta plays Gauff

No56 Heather Watson plays Ferro

Women’s draw of 128: 107 by ranking, 13 by qualification, 8 wild cards

Halep quarter 1

R1 Sara Sorribes Tormo

R2 Irina-Camelia Begu or Jil Teichmann

R3 No25 seed Amanda Anisimova

R4 Seeds are No24 Dayana Yastremska and No15 Vondrousova

QF Top seeds are No9 Konta and No5 Bertens

Svitolina quarter 2

R1 Varvara Gracheva

R2 Qualifier or Elsa Jacquemot

R3 No27 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova

R4 Seeds are No17 Anett Kontaveit and No16 Elise Mertens

QF Top seeds are No10 Azarenka and No6 Serena Williams

Kenin quarter 3

R1 Liudmila Samsonova

R2 Timea Babos or Ana Bogdan

R3 No26 seed Donna Vekic

R4 Seeds are No22 Karolina Muchova and No14 Elena Rybakina

QF Top seeds are No11 Muguruza and No8 Aryna Sabalenka

Pliskova quarter 4

R1 Qualifier

R2 Madison Brengle or Ostapenko

R3 No29 seed Stephens

R4 Seeds are No19 Alison Riske and No13 Petra Martic

QF Top seeds are No7 Kvitova and No12 Madison Keys

French Open 2020 men’s preview: Djokovic, Nadal, Thiem lead the charge

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