French Open 2019: Will it be Williams, Osaka, Halep, Bertens – or another – in ever-changing landscape?
Serena Williams is only repeat winner in women’s draw in last 12 years in Paris
Much is made of the dominance of a trio of men at the Majors, and nowhere more so than at Roland Garros. Eleven times Rafael Nadal has won the French title since 2004, with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic breaking the party once each. And Stan Wawrinka picked up one of his three Majors in Paris in 2015.
But turn to the women’s honours board, and the picture could not be more different. Since 2007, only two women have been repeat champions in Paris, and one of those, Maria Sharapova, is missing injured this year.
Indeed, in the last five French Opens, there have been seven different finalists. Further, there have been 15 different semi-finalists since 2014. And casting the net wider, in the last 84 clay court tournaments, there have been 49 different players to win a title—and during that same stretch since 2014, there have been five different Roland Garros champions.
It will come as no surprise that Serena Williams, with a tally of 23 Majors, is the one repeat champion in the last decade—and she has won a total of three times in Paris—but what are the chances of her or another former winner repeating in 2019?
Well Williams herself looked as though her campaign would end prematurely when she lost the first set to the 83-ranked Vitalia Diatchenko, but she screamed at herself, got the crowd on its feet in response, and pounded through the next two sets for the loss of one game.
Williams is making her 17th appearance at Roland Garros, and has the most titles and match-wins, 63, among active players. And while it has been a relatively lean time for her in Major titles since she won her 23rd in Australia while pregnant with her first child—though she has reached two finals since her return—it would be foolish to disregarded her chances in Paris this year.
Then there is current No1 Naomi Osaka, who is aiming to be the first woman to win three Majors consecutively since Williams managed the feat in 2015. She arrived here as top seed for the first time in a Major, and with a 7-1 record on clay until withdrawing in Rome with a hand injury.
But like Williams, she almost came unstuck in her first match, as a swathe of errors saw her drop the first set 6-0 against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. She stared defeat in the face in the second set as her opponent served for the match, but Osaka broke, and then forced a tie-break on the fourth break point of a marathon 12th game.
With that set in the bag, 7-6(4), Osaka asserted her superiority in the third, 6-1, to extend her Major winning streak to 15, and so kept alive her hopes of a third straight Major title. She afterwards admitted:
“I think this is the most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match. I think you could see that in the first set. I was literally not hitting any balls in the court… Usually the nerves go away, but it kind of stayed the entire match. Then I just felt like it was a fight of willpower. I managed to win in the end.”
As for the defending champion, Simona Halep, few would be willing to dismiss her chances either, though like Williams and Osaka, she was roundly tested in the first round by Ajla Tomljanovic.
The popular Romanian was runner-up in 2014 and 2017, before clinching the title last year, and she was runner-up to Bertens in that Madrid final this month.
She also raced to a quick lead in her opener, and took the first set 6-2, but Tomljanovic got two breaks in the second to eventually seal the set, 6-3. Halep carried her momentum into the third with a 5-0 lead, and despite conceding one break back, won the match, 6-1.
So Halep is on her way to becoming one of an elite group of women who have defended their Roland Garros titles in the Open era: Margaret Court, Christ Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, and Justine Henin.
Also in the mix, and able to double up at Roland Garros, is former champion Garbine Muguruza, who won in 2016 and was semi-finalist last year.
Seeded at just No19 after a poor run on this year’s clay, the Spaniard was another to face a tough opening battle. She came back to beat Taylor Townsend 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, but looked more like the formidable big-time player who has also won Wimbledon when she took on Johanna Larsson. She beat the Swede 6-4, 6-1 in just 64 minutes to reach the third round for the sixth consecutive year.
Certainly some of the initial contenders fell by the wayside very early. Following Angelique Kerber’s first round loss and Petra Kvitova’s withdrawal with injury, for example, two of the key players coming into Paris were left with the chance of taking over the top ranking from the current No1 Naomi Osaka.
No2 seed Karolina Pliskova arrived on the back of a victory in Rome, her 13th title and her third on clay, and she had also notched up the most wins in 2019, 28 of them. Along with No4 seed Kiki Bertens, she is one of just two players in the draw with two titles this year, but she needs to reach the final to have a chance of reclaiming the No1 that she held two years ago. However, if Osaka reaches the semi-finals here, or if Bertens also makes the final, Pliskova will need to win the title.
But the tall Czech is one of the most consistent on the tour, having reached the quarters or better at seven of the last 10 Majors—more than any other player—and made the semis here in 2017.
She cruised through her opener against Madison Brengle, and did the same over Kristina Kucova, even though their previous two matches had gone to three sets. This time, Pliskova took only 56 minutes to advance, 6-2, 6-2, keeping alive her hopes of a first Major—and the No1 ranking.
Bertens, for her part, arrived in Paris as one of the favourites, and at a new career-high No4 after winning the biggest clay tournament ahead of Roland Garros, the prestigious Premier in Madrid.
The 6ft Dutch woman had built up more match-wins on clay in the last six seasons than any other woman, 81-27 since 2014, was a former French Open semi-finalist, and reached the quarters or better in six of her last 10 clay events.
This year alone on clay, Bertens had beaten Kerber, Halep, Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, and Osaka, backing up her win in Madrid with semis in Stuttgart and Rome. Little wonder that she was firmly in the frame as the potential champion.
Her second match was against the fast-improving 21-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova, and it promised to be a tussle: Both their matches this year, on hard courts, had gone to three sets, one win apiece. And if she came through it, Bertens could be the third challenger to British hope Johanna Konta—to whom she lost in the final of Rome just last week.
Konta went on to lose to Pliskova in that final, but it put the Briton fair and square among the clay elite. Roland Garros would have to wait a few more hours to find out if Konta and Bertens would clash again.
No7 seed Sloane Stephens, runner-up here last year, advanced to the third round over Sara Sorries Tormo, 6-1, 7-6(3).
No9 seed Elina Svitolina received a walk-over into the third round courtesy of an injured Kateryna Kozlova. She next faces Muguruza.
No20 seed Elise Mertens beat Diane Parry, 6-1, 6-3.
Kaia Kanepi beat Shuai Zhang, 6-7(4),6-0, 7-5.